Since the successful street demonstrations against the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle in 1999, police and federal agencies have relied on aggressive and unconstitutional tactics to disperse, disrupt, and dissuade popular protest. Last week, the ACLU of Colorado, and attorneys from the NLG People’s Law Project, filed suit on behalf of bystanders, activists, and legal observers to hold Denver accountable for an arbitrary roundup during the 2008 DNC.
In downtown Denver on August 25, 2008 police clearly tried to derail planned demonstrations by arresting activists before they could parade near politicians’ corporate-sponsored soiree’s and cocktail parties. The problem is that the U.S. Constitution doesn’t permit law enforcement to simply roundup people willy nilly based upon fears of the ruckus that they might commit. In addition, the Fourth Amendment requires something called “individualized suspicion” based upon specific articulable facts before state agents can detain people, let alone arrest them. On August 25, the Denver police arrested on-lookers and passersby, as well as alleged protesters. Cecil Bethea, age 80, was arrested while he was trying to catch a bus on the block which had been cordoned off by police. Police never issued an order for people to disperse. None of these individuals was found guilty of breaking the law, though police did manage to disrupt and quell dissent that evening.
In recent times, when the government declares a National Security Special Event, tremendous resources are mobilized to silence the voice of opposition. Protest pens or cages are used to keep citizen activists from reaching their intended audience. Repressive tactics and special rules used to make it harder to speak out have been well documented by several enlightening texts, such as:
- Policing Dissent by Luis A. Ferndandez (2008)
- Punishing Protest by Heidi Boghosian (2007)
- Give Me Liberty by Naomi Wolf (2008)
The Denver police ring on 15th Street encircled infiltrators as well as onlookers. Law enforcement officers in plainclothes tried to provoke a confrontation with uniformed officers to create a diversion and facilitate their removal from the circle. The true identity of those officers was not discovered until court proceedings. This litigation will, no doubt, shed more light on the high levels of coordination and surveillance (from the local intelligence fusion center) that informed the government’s actions on August 25.
On the streets of Denver last summer, police were on high alert for anything that protesters could use as a weapon, or as a means of self defense. Police in Minneapolis-St.Paul seized a U-haul truck full of traffic barricades because some protestors planned to use them as shields in a sit-down. Today, my thoughts go to the right-leaning protestors who have shown up at public events adorned with sidearms or assault rifles. And I wonder, would that have been allowed in the streets of Denver or St. Paul? Would social justice activists be allowed to parade with firearms when the G-20 comes to Pittsburgh in September? For moral and practical reasons, environmentalists and economic justice activists are not going to sport sidearms as they block traffic or drop banners.
While the Right is busy flaunting their Second Amendment rights, it seems the Left is still fighting for their First.