Recent weeks have seen waves of popular protest sweep through the Middle East in Tunisia, Yemen, Jordan and notably the demonstrations in Egypt, which led to the fall of the dictator Hosni Mubarak. The international response has included powerful expressions of support for the people of Egypt and their right to dissent against Mubarak’s regime. Here in the United States, this support has come largely at the grassroots level with public statements and demonstrations of solidarity, primarily organized by Arab-American communities.
The response from US government has cautiously paid lip service to some of the issues raised by the protesters. This is inconsistent with their actions, as the US has been a close political ally of Mubarak for years, giving billions of dollars in aid to his regime and had US diplomats supporting him during the protests. However, the unambiguous message we have heard from the political leaders of this country is the oft-repeated mantra that the United States supports universal human rights, particularly the rights to peaceful protest and free speech.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated at a news conference on January 28, four days into the Egyptian uprising, "We urge the Egyptian authorities to allow peaceful protests and to reverse the unprecedented steps it has taken to cut off communications." President Obama has repeatedly made similar statements, at one point telling reporters, "I want to be very clear in calling upon the Egyptian authorities to refrain from any violence against peaceful protesters ... The people of Egypt have rights that are universal. That includes the right to peaceful assembly and association. The right to free speech and the ability to determine their own destiny. These are human rights and the United States will stand up for them everywhere."
These statements clearly assert the right to speak freely against the government, the right to protest in the street and opposition to police violence being used to suppress public demonstrations. The sentiment of these declarations should be embraced and supported. However, the unfortunate and disappointing reality is that the empty rhetoric from these political leaders about the right to dissent is remarkably inconsistent with the way protest is often handled in this country. I see a striking and stark contrast between the amplified declarations of the US commitment to human rights and the policies and practices of the government in this country. This disparity between words and actions about human rights issues has crystallized these recent weeks in regard to the US position on the right to protest.
While the US claims to uphold right to demonstrate around the world, there have been countless examples throughout the history of this country of protests being shut down by an overwhelming police presence. In recent years, it has become routine for police departments to use a host of tactics to limit and prevent mass demonstrations. These tactics have included mass arrests of demonstrators, preemptive arrests and trumped up charges against protest organizers and use of less-lethal munitions such as rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray, Tasers, concussion grenades, Long Range Acoustic Devices, bean bag rounds and wooden bullets, to name a few.
One example I am intimately familiar with is from Chicago on March 20, 2003, the day after the US military invaded Iraq, as spontaneous demonstrations erupted around the country. Here in Chicago, over 10,000 people gathered downtown and began marching through the streets and onto Lake Shore Drive. The protest was an immediate response to an emerging issue and there was not time to go through Chicago’s lengthy application process to get a march permit, so the demonstration lacked a paper permit.
The police both tacitly and explicitly allowed the protest to occur. However, hours into the demonstration, the march left the Drive and the numbers of protesters decreased. Police clad in riot gear surrounded and detained the crowd. The officers then began making mass arrests, using excessive force on a number of people and by the end of the night, nearly 550 people were taken into police custody, including some with bruises, broken bones and permanent nerve damage. I was one of the protestors who was violently arrested and was struck in the face by an officer in riot gear, cracking my nose and leaving a gash that needed stitches.
A class action lawsuit, Vodak v. City of Chicago, was filed after the incident, which I have been involved in as both a plaintiff and a legal worker. The suit is on behalf of the approximately 550 people who were falsely arrested, some spending two days in jail, along with 300 others who were detained on the street for over an hour and a half and forced to discard their signs and anti-war materials. After years of litigation, on the eve of trial Virginia Kendall, the federal judge presiding over the case, ruled in favor of the City of Chicago and determined that the police had the right to arrest the protesters because we did not have a permit. That decision was appealed to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals where it was argued this past October, during which one of the judges stated, “It sounds like a police state, if a large crowd of peaceful people can all just be swept up and arrested by the police.” At the time of this writing, the class members and attorneys await the Appeals Court’s decision, which will determine whether the case can proceed.
This incident exemplifies the way in which police forces in the US clamp down on protest. I am highlighting it because it was just one example where I personally experienced the violent police suppression of protesters, and where I have watched as the City of Chicago has paid millions of tax dollars to a private law firm to defend itself and its violations of people’s rights. I have now even seen a Federal Judge find that the police were justified in using mass arrests to stop First-Amended protected activity. It is from that position that I find it outrageous that Obama and other politicians have the audacity to speak on the “universal human right” to protest publicly. The silence from Obama regarding the Chicago Police’s violation of the right to demonstrate is aggravated by the fact that he was a Chicago-based politician when the incident happened and throughout most of the litigation of the case.
I mention this example in Chicago not because it is exceptional, but rather because it demonstrates the use of mass arrests and police brutality that have become commonplace at large demonstrations in this country. We have seen similar responses, usually with even more police violence at the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999, the Republican and Democratic Conventions in 2000 in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, demonstrations against the IMF and World Bank in Washington DC in 2000 and 2002, the Free Trade Area of the Americas Ministerial in Miami in 2003, the Republican Conventions in New York in 2004 and St. Paul in 2008, and the G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh in 2009, among others.
The example of the G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh demonstrates the inconsistency of the government’s claim to support the right to protest, along with their claims to support Internet freedom. The US calls to free speech have largely been in response to the Egyptian government shutting down the Internet in an attempt to limit the ability for protest organizers to use social media, such as Twitter and Facebook. While the US actions have differed from that of Egypt, their response to social media at the G-20 exposes the gap between their rhetoric and their practice.
As Obama and other heads of state met at the G-20 Summit, thousands of protesters took to the street against the political and economic policies of the twenty strongest governments. Police forces clad in riot gear and National Guard units patrolled the streets of Pittsburgh using a variety of tools to restrain the demonstrations, including tear gas, Long Range Acoustic Devices and canine units. One of the primary tools used by the activists to communicate was Twitter.
The Pennsylvania Police responded by arresting two of the tweeting activists, including Elliot Madison and charging him with felonies, including, "criminal use of a communication facility and possession of instruments of crime." After being released and returning home, a few days later the FBI and other agents with the Joint Terrorism Task Force raided his home, seizing computers, books and boxes full of other personal items.
At the time of his arrest, Ryan Singel from Wired.com aptly commented, “If Madison were an Iranian using Twitter to coordinate government protests, he'd likely be considered a hero in the West. Instead, the self-identified anarchist...is now facing up to five years in prison for each count a grand jury cares to indict him on.” While the state charges in Pennsylvania were eventually dropped, Madison’s arrest has sent a chilling message to activists that using social media networks as protest organizing tools could bring criminal charges.
To be perfectly clear, articulating the ways in which police forces have repressed protests here in the United States is in no way an attempt to undermine or minimize the intensity of the repression and violence that has been experienced by the people of Egypt. The last thing I wish to do is negate the courage and strength that has been shown by countless Egyptians who have stood up in the face of police violence or make invisible the dozens of people who have been killed in the protests.
Rather, I wish to echo the millions of people around the world who are declaring their solidarity with the people of Egypt and emphasize that true solidarity means resisting oppression, police brutality and State repression from wherever you stand. From Pittsburgh to Sidi Bouzid, from Miami to Sana’a, from Suez to St. Paul, from New York to Amman, from Cairo to Chicago. We should allow the courageous spirit of resistance that has emerged in Egypt to inspire our work fighting for social justice in this country. We also must remind ourselves that the rights we have in this country are not provided to us by presidents, police or politicians and that they are only guaranteed when we exercise them. The fight against injustice must continue on all fronts in the courts, in our communities and in the streets.