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The State of Dissent in America: Flex Your Rights

2013_0703-2By Kevin Zeese

When we occupied Freedom Plaza in Washington, DC, during the Autumn of 2011, we often marched down Pennsylvania Avenue to Capitol Hill to express our many grievances. We were always accompanied by a large contingent of police officers and other members of the national security state, some obvious and others not so much. Along the way, we would pass the Newseum, which has the First Amendment engraved in large letters on the front of the building. We made it a habit to pause at the Newseum and read aloud in unison the words of the First Amendment. The reason for doing so was to let everyone know, including the security state, that we have the right to protest peacefully and that we were exercising that right.

We live in a time when there is much to protest. The government is dysfunctional, ruled by plutocrats who pass laws for their corporate friends that cause real harm and suffering for the people and ecological collapse of the planet. Many activists with whom we work recognize that the traditional tools used to effect change within the system – petitions, lobbying, electing supportive legislators or running for office – largely fail in the current political environment.

Our most effective option is strategic and militant, nonviolent protest in all of its many forms, from boycotts to rallies to hunger strikes. And it is our First Amendment right to use these tools. But rather than respecting and supporting our right to peaceably assemble and petition the government for a redress of our grievances, the national security state and legislators are chipping away at our rights in more extreme ways than ever before.

Even our right to know what is being done in our name is disappearing. The White House and Congress are doing more in secret and are cracking down on those who reveal their actions. Whistleblowers are being charged under the Espionage Act and journalists are being spied upon.

It is up to the people to preserve our rights to dissent and to know the truth. Otherwise, they will continue to slip away. Every day in the US, people are taking action to hold onto these rights and they are inspiring others to do the same.

The Vague Definition of Crime

During the occupation of Freedom Plaza in 2011, we sometimes joked with law enforcement that the Rule of Law only applied to the 99%, not the 1%. The police knew this was more a truth than it was a joke. Bankers who commit fraud and those who crashed the economy are simply fined and not prosecuted at all. Health insurance and pharmaceutical corporations are regularly fined for fraudulent behavior, more than any other industry. To most large corporations, these fines are simply a cost of doing business and wind up costing much less than what the fraudulent behavior reaps in profits.

Corporate executives are not even held accountable when their business practices result in massive deaths. An example is Warren Anderson, the former chair of Union Carbide during the Bhopal chemical disaster that poisoned over 500,000 people and killed thousands. He skipped bail in India and fled to the US. And he has not been returned despite warrants for his arrest issued by India.

On the flip-side, the Obama administration has been conducting a war on dissent. It appears that the security state can turn almost any behavior into a crime if a person is not a member of the elite. In fact, just a few days ago on June 27, a health care activist was arrested for writing a chalk message on a sidewalk during a protest against the governor for not expanding Medicaid to more Pennsylvanians under the federal health law. The charge was disorderly conduct for writing “a derogatory remark about the governor on the sidewalk.” The remark: “Corbett has health care, we should too.”

Since the Occupy movement rose up in 2011, a number of laws have been passed that are written vaguely and increase the power of the security state. In early 2012, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) passed by Congress contained a provision that loosened the definition of a “terrorist” to include anyone who has contact with Al Qaeda or an “associated organization,” and allowed indefinite detention without trial and extraordinary rendition of US citizens.

Around the same time, Occupy London was placed on the terrorist watch list by the London Police. And it was later learned, after a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request was granted, that the FBI was monitoring the Occupy movement in the US and in some papers referred to Occupy protests as “domestic terrorism.”

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