Like many other progressives, I watched the weekend of No NATO protests in Chicago with great concern. Not because - like the more ill-informed and/or right-wing media commentators - I was scared of "terrorists" or "The Black Bloc" (as the more ill-informed, right-wing and/or just plain lazy members of the fourth estate have been typing it recently ... as if the black bloc tactic were an actual organization). Rather because I believe in democracy. And therefore I believe in the fundamental democratic right to dissent. And the related fundamental democratic right to peaceably assemble for the redress of grievances. Since I hold these beliefs - which are supposed to be enshrined in the foundational documents of the United States of America - I have a serious problem with the increasingly common practice of militarizing American cities during major political events where there is likely to be a large demonstration. That is, a large left-wing demonstration. Large right-wing demonstrations tend to get kid glove treatment from our government at all levels since they are no threat whatsoever to the corporate-dominated status quo. Quite the reverse. Although it's rare that right-wingers can get more than a few thousand people in one place for anything other than an evangelical service at some megachurch anyway. For progressives, demonstrations are currently our primary means of engaging in a political system which largely shuts us out. We call them frequently and scarcely a year goes by without at least one 100,000+ person march or rally somewhere in the US. So preventing us from having successful demonstrations is a means of censoring our views even further than they are already censored by our corporate-owned media and corporate-dominated public media.
That said, let's look at the Chicago demonstrations. Attendance estimates have ranged from 2,000 (from some Democratic Party functionaries) to over 40,000 (from some rather hopeful lefties). From the photos I've seen, the number looks to have been between 5,000 and 10,000. But I wasn't there in person and that's not my point anyway. Let's say there were 50,000 demonstrators against NATO - the number that Adbusters magazine insisted on publicizing over the heads of Occupy Chicago activists and other local organizers a while back. Since that's the kind of crowd the government was prepared to defend the NATO summit against.
A march and rally of 50,000 people in a city the size of Chicago is just not that big a deal logistically. Especially since these events are usually organized by experienced hands that know how to run things and deal with the city and the police and keep things moving smoothly.
But let's assume that - given the growing militant anti-capitalist spirit that has been sparked by the Occupy movement since last fall - as many as 5,000 activists (one-tenth of a 50,000 person demo) didn't want to stop at a march and rally against NATO, but wanted to take their protest right to the site of the NATO event. And let's further assume that some were willing to engage in some pushing and shoving with the police to get where they wanted to go. Police that, to be clear, get lots of money from (the unfortunately named) Department of Homeland Security for all kinds of arms and armor. And thus are totally loaded for bear in any street protest situation with all kinds of nasty but "non-lethal" (mostly) crowd control weapons to play with. And therefore are in little real physical danger at all from unarmed protestors. Sure there will be injuries in any melee. But the injuries cops sustain is rarely as nasty as the ones they deliver with their aforementioned armory.
Now in the old days - say 25 or 30 years ago - demonstrators would have been able to get quite close to events like the NATO meeting. Definitely a block away at times. Sometimes even closer depending on the situation and the defenses.
And that was just too bad for the cops and the powers-that-be. The right to protest means that protestors have every right to get reasonably close to the target of their opprobrium. Not usually inside the event being protested - although small groups with the necessary credentials can pull that off. But certainly within shouting distance.
Of course that is an inconvenience for the people running the event being protested. It's meant to be. And again, that's just too bad.
I mean, sorry. That's politics. If lots of people hate what you're doing, then you have to either placate them by reforming your policies enough to shut them up or put up with the consequences of your actions.
And if, like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, you're responsible for helping destabilize sovereign governments in the service of multinational corporations and in the interest of regional control by the US ... wasting billions of dollars annually that should be going to social services in the process ... then you have to expect political blowback.
Problem is the American ruling class wants to have its cake and eat it too. They want to ceaselessly loot and despoil the planet and its people, and do so without hearing a peep of dissent.
But in a democracy, rich people, their corporations, and their bought-off politicians, have to put up with regular protests at the very least.
And we're not so far gone that public demonstrations are completely banned.
But we're edging closer and closer to that state of affairs. And that's what's worrying me.
For example, whenever some big capitalist confab is imposed upon a city from above - as was the case for the NATO meeting in Chicago - its organizers get to invoke a special unconstitutional (although they have the juridical mojo to duck that assertion) maneuver and call the NATO summit a "National Special Security Event."
NSSE is not a designation established by Republicans like Bush, Jr., mind you. Like so many pieces of bad governance it was never passed by Congress at all. And it was done by a Democratic administration. It was enabled by President Bill Clinton in May 1998 as part of Presidential Decision Directive 62. All the feds need to do to bring it into play is indicate that there is a threat of "terrorism" at a large and significant event that is planned to last a few days or more and is likely to have "dignitaries" in attendance.
Since pretty much any oppositional group - irrespective of actual documented violent behavior or lack thereof - can be deemed "terrorist" in a pinch, and since lots of big meetings of the rich and powerful last a few days or more and automatically include lots of dignitaries, it's no trick to designate meetings like the NATO summit an NSSE.
Once an event becomes a National Special Security Event, the US Secret Service - a completely trustworthy entity whose special agents in no way engage in any off-duty naughty activities without paying - is immediately put in charge of its security. The FBI is placed in charge of intelligence. FEMA is put in charge of recovery operations in the event of terrorism or natural disaster. And so on.
Most of the manpower will still be supplied by local law enforcement agents - like the Chicago Police Department this past weekend - but they are coordinated by the feds.
Since the big and vague spectre of "terrorism" is at the center of this giant dog and pony show, security preparations for an NSSE are concomitantly big as well. So such preparations no longer simply include standard hotel and route security for delegates coupled with site security that involves checkpoints at all public entrances and perhaps a one-block cordon on all streets around the venue.
Oh, no no. Now they can basically shut down as much of the host city as they want for as long as they want. And they can put heavily armed police, paid paramilitaries, National Guard and military forces on the ground on all public transportation routes plus bus stations, train stations, ports and airports.
And most importantly, from the perspective of corporate and government bigs, they can keep protestors well away from the NSSEs at will.
And they can preemptively arrest people and hold them without charges before an NSSE even starts. Which they can apparently now do with impunity anyway since the National Defense Authorization Act passed a few months back - although the offending passages of that law are already being challenged in the courts.
And they can nail people on federal conspiracy and terrorism charges as we saw with the protest kids in Chicago that were busted in just such a fashion for either possessing beer making equipment that could be spun as a dangerous explosives setup or getting directly entrapped by undercover cops who thoughtfully left some ready-made molotov cocktails in the kids' crash pad so they could be conveniently "discovered" in the surprise (and improperly warranted) raid by the CPD.
[One of those kids is from Boston, and you've got to watch the coverage of those developments by the "reporters" from Fox 25 News to believe how bad "journalism" can get these days. Not that much of the coverage of the No NATO protests was any better - and yes I'm talking about you, WGN staff.]
And under the guise of the aforementioned "intelligence" work the feds and local cops can get up to all kinds of dirty tricks to make it more difficult for protestors to get to the host city of the NSSE, and walk the streets without getting detained and interrogated at gunpoint. Which the various nodes of our national security state have always done anyway from time to time, but not with the broad coverage of "anti-terrorist" directives like the one that enabled NSSEs.
And once protests finally get going, they can pour thousands of heavily armed police and paramilitaries into the streets - and start using violent tactics at will. Which explains why the casualty list from Chicago is higher than a typical demonstration of its size under normal circumstances.
Not to mention the old government practice of seeding the crowds at such protests with agents provocateurs who can have a blast throwing the occasional rock or breaking a window or two - which acts can then be blown out of all proportion by the cops and their loyal news media into the moral equivalent of dropping a nuke on a childcare center.
And do actual protestors occasionally throw a rock or break a window, too? Sure. Though it's still a rare occurrence at left-wing demonstrations in this country. Is it any kind of big deal in situations involving thousands of people? Not at all. A garden party compared to the average professional sports event - and more specifically, the average post-championship street party. Since protestors are usually stone sober in the main. Not fueled up with booze or dope beforehand.
In summation, do I have a problem with putting a few dozen officers in the field to cover a protest of thousands? No. They can always call for reinforcements if really necessary.
Do I have a problem with standard security measures at large events with dignitaries? No. As long as they focus on the hotels, motorcade routes, and event sites. And as long as they don't cordon off streets for more than a block or so away from the event. Less if at all possible.
Am I not concerned about "terrorism"? If by that the hypothetical questioner means some big violent act taken by a political or religious organization against a big event and the city around it, then I am most certainly concerned. I think blowing things up is a non-starter as a political strategy, and I don't ever want to see innocent people killed for any reason - no matter how "noble" the cause.
But that's why we have intelligence agencies and police forces in place to begin with. To stay on top of groups likely to commit such acts and bring them to heel before they can do so.
Do I think militarizing entire cities in the service of such intelligence and police work with do anything to stop such acts? Absolutely not.
But then, neither do most of the people in the national security state that drafted Presidential directives like the one that enabled NSSEs.
The purpose of having a designation like an NSSE is to stifle public dissent against unpopular corporate and government policies.
And more disturbingly, I believe it is a building block of fascism. Of total control of political life by a corporate-dominated state.
So it's critical that Americans protest this kind of government tactic while we still can.
We've already had one NSSE in Boston since the 1998 Presidential enabling directive was issued. Our city was militarized for several days in July 2004 when the Democratic National Convention came to town. The DNC being an automatic NSSE.
I'll never forget riding the subway with guys with automatic weapons. Or seeing UMass Boston - where we had just held the Boston Social Forum - turned into a staging area for combined police and military forces on hand for the convention. A parking lot and playing field was covered with police cars and military vehicles. I heard they were mobilizing 3,000 cops and troops there.
In fact, the room UMB gave us as a temporary headquarters for the BSF was completely torn apart by the Secret Service the moment we were forced out at 4 p.m on July 25, 2004.
I returned to the little nondescript concrete room after all the hoopla was over a couple of weeks later, and was flabbergasted at how they'd ripped out sections of the walls and torn out the ceiling panels.
As if the organizers of a huge public forum were stashing weapons at UMB or some crazy thing.
And what of the Boston Garden where the convention was being held. They built a fence around it. Just for starters.
And any protestors that wanted to approach to about a couple of blocks away were supposed to go to the "protest zone" - which was what?
It was a cage.
A freaking cage. That's how much they thought of free speech. A cage next to the old elevated trolley line ... and the rubble of the old elevated highway through the center of town - now replaced by the series of parks that includes the Dewey Square park made famous as the former encampment site of Occupy Boston. A place where most of the press in town for the DNC would never think of going. And that protestors mostly avoided entirely - except to protest its very existence as an affront to democracy - preferring instead to hold marches and rallies elsewhere in town.*
It's up to all Americans to stand up to this kind of anti-democratic practice. We cannot allow protest to be outlawed for a week, a day or even an hour in any public space - and I mean public in its broadest sense here, referring to the way it's used and perceived by the general public, not to whether it's privately owned or not. Because once the militarization of public space becomes commonplace, then it's a hop, skip and a jump away from militarizing the entire society.
And that cannot be allowed to happen.
So, my advice here?
Find a group like the ACLU that is opposing this kind of government overreach and start working to preserve our democratic rights.
And if there isn't a group where you're at, start one.
Fight undemocratic government policies and practices now. Or become a victim of them later.
Jason Pramas is Editor/Publisher of Open Media Boston
*Longtime progressive activist Michael Horan remembers that by the second day of protest, the authorities had basically ceded Canal St. - next to the Cage up to the fence on Causeway St. surrounding the Boston Garden - to demonstrators for the remainder of the DNC. Thanks for the reminder! He provides a photo of protestors on Canal St. here.