The bulwark against tyranny is dissent. Open opposition, the right to challenge those in power, is a mainstay of any healthy democracy. The Democratic and Republican conventions will test the commitment of the two dominant U.S. political parties to the cherished tradition of dissent. Things are not looking good.
Denver's CBS4 News just reported that the city is planning on jailing arrested Democratic convention protesters at a warehouse with barbed-wire-topped cages and signs warning of the threat of stun gun use. Meanwhile, a federal judge has ruled that a designated protest area is legal, despite claims that protesters will be too far from the Democratic delegates to be heard.
The full spectrum of police and military will also be on hand at the Democratic convention in Denver, many of these units coordinated by a "fusion center." These centers are springing up around the country as an outgrowth of the post-9/11 national-security system. Erin Rosa of the online Colorado Independent recently published a report on the Denver fusion center, which will be sharing information with the U.S. Secret Service, the FBI and the U.S. Northern Command. The center is set up to gather and distribute "intelligence" about "suspicious activities," which, Rosa points out, "can include taking pictures or taking notes. The definition is very broad."
Civil rights advocates fear the fusion center could enable unwarranted spying on protesters exercising their First Amendment rights at the convention. Documents obtained by I-Witness Video, a group that documents police abuses and demonstrations, revealed that the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency were receiving intelligence about the protests at the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City. The growing problem is that legal, peaceful protesters are ending up on federal databases and watch lists with scant legal oversight.
Former FBI agent Mike German is now a national-security-policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. He said, "It's unclear who is actually in charge and whose rules apply to the information that's being collected and shared and distributed through these fusion centers." Maryland State Police were recently exposed infiltrating groups like the Baltimore Coalition Against the Death Penalty. German explains how police expand "beyond normal law-enforcement functions, and start becoming intelligence collectors against protest groups. The reports that we obtained ... make clear that there was no indication of any sort of criminal activity. And yet, that investigation went on for 14 months, and these reports were uploaded into a federal database. ... When all these agencies are authorized to go out and start collecting this information and putting it in areas where it's accessible by the intelligence community, it's a very dangerous proposition for our democracy."
After Barack Obama became the presumptive Democratic nominee, the protest coalition in Denver splintered, as many were motivated originally by the anticipated nomination of the more hawkish Hillary Clinton. An anarchist group, Unconventional Denver, actually offered to call off its protests if Denver would redirect the $50-million federal grant it is receiving for security to "reinvest their police budget toward real community security: new elementary schools; health care for the uninsured; providing clean, renewable energy." The plea has not been answered. The city, meanwhile, is stocking up on "less-lethal" pepper-ball rifles and has set aside a space for permitted protesting that some are referring to as the "Freedom Cage."
In the Twin Cities on the evening Obama was giving his Democratic acceptance speech in June, the St. Paul Police Department arrested a 50-year-old man peacefully handing out leaflets promoting a Sept. 1 march on the Republican National Convention. After mass arrests at the RNC in Philadelphia in 2000 and roughly 1,800 arrests in New York City in 2004, ACLU Minnesota predicts hundreds will be arrested in St. Paul, and is organizing and training 75 lawyers to defend them.
For now, the eyes of the world are on the Beijing Olympics. Sportswriter Dave Zirin is reporting on the suppression of protests that are occurring there. He has an interesting perspective, as he is a member of the anti-death-penalty group infiltrated in Maryland. He told me, "Our taxpayer dollars went to pay people to infiltrate and take notes on our meetings, and it's absolutely enraging ... a lot of this Homeland Security funding is an absolute sham ... it's being used to actually crush dissent, not to keep us safer in any real way." The lack of freedom of speech in China is getting a little attention in the news. But what about the crackdown on dissent here at home? Dissent is essential to the functioning of a democratic society. There is no more important time than now.