Awareness Is Two Steps Ahead, Paranoia Is Two Steps Behind

When it comes to the suppression of dissent and the subversion of the U.S. Constitution, ignorance is not bliss.

That's why people who believe in the importance of the First Amendment and the democratic practice of dissent should take notice of the recent revelation that the Bush administration has been orchestrating a concerted, dissent-squelching operation using a playbook called the "Presidential Advance Manual."

The American Civil Liberties Union recently released the massively redacted "Presidential Advance Manual," a document that outlines how the Bush administration recommends undercutting dissent. This manual-dated October 2002 and marked "Sensitive - Do Not Copy"- antes up a master plan for "deterring potential protestors from attending events" involving President Bush.

In an effort to control political space, the manual asserts, "Homemade signs are not allowed at events." It goes on to suggest that event organizers "Look for signs that [protestors] may be carrying, and if need be, have volunteers check for folded cloth signs that demonstrators may be bringing to the event."

If activists manage to slip through security with their banners in tow, the manual recommends forming "rally squads" comprised of "small groups of volunteers" from "college/young republican organizations, local athletic teams, and fraternities/sororities" and other pro-Bush groups who patrol the scene in perpetual search of dissident citizens. Should these "rally squads" happen upon demonstrators bent on questioning the president's policies, they are instructed to "use their signs and banners as shields between the demonstrators and the main press platform. If the demonstrators are yelling, rally squads can begin and lead supportive chants to drown out the protestors (USA! USA! USA!)."

Members of these "rally squads" are reminded emphatically (in bold, underlined text) to "avoid physical contact with demonstrators!" since, the manual incorrectly claims, "most often, the demonstrators want physical confrontation."

In order to "minimize demonstrators," event organizers are also told to work with the Secret Service and local police "to designate a protest area where demonstrators can be placed, preferably not in view of the event site or motorcade route." These designated protest zones-also called "free speech zones"-are usually located far from the people the protesters are trying to influence. Activists across the country who have refused to limit their protest to these designated areas or who have tried to leave the zones to protest elsewhere have been arrested.

Activists shouldn't wallow in paralytic dejection, mumbling glumly that the "Presidential Advance Manual" is just another brick in the ever-expanding edifice of repression that the Bush administration and its congressional collaborators in the Democratic Party have built-from the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001 to the Military Commissions Act of 2006 to the Protect America Act of 2007.

Rather, dissidents should appreciate the fact that the administration's suppression strategies are being placed under the spotlight for all to see. Such knowledge is empowering. Forest activist Kim Marks told me during a recent interview: "Awareness is two steps ahead. Paranoia is two steps behind." Demystifying the ways the government attempts to squelch dissent is an important step on the road to more effective activism, and, in turn, a more vibrant democracy.

And let's not forget that activists fighting for social justice have history on their side.

Throughout U.S. history, presidential administrations have deemed dissidents pesky nuisances to be avoided, undermined, and in many cases actively suppressed. Yet these same dissidents-from slavery abolitionists Frederick Douglass and John Brown to women's suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Alice Paul to civil rights leaders Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr.-are held up as heroes precisely because their ideas and philosophies challenged the prevailing wisdom of their day.

The existence of the "Presidential Advance Manual" demands emboldened creativity, courage, and commitment. All the while dissident citizens should remember that the entire United States is a "free speech zone" and that-now that President Bush has an approval rating hovering around 30%-they have the numbers in their favor, too.

Link to the "Presidential Advance Manual" on the ACLU web site: