Freedom of Speech is silenced at peaceful protests
On March 17, 2013 Clare Grady and three other members of the Irish Catholic Worker Community took to a local Ithaca army recruiting station and practiced their right to peacefully assemble. Clare and her cohorts poured their own blood on the walls, posters, windows, and US flag in a symbolic action against the US’s imminent invasion of Iraq and the inevitable bloodshed this war would cause.
These four protestors (who would come to be known as the St. Patrick’s Day Four) then knelt down in prayer, waiting for what they knew would be an arrest.
The St. Patrick’s Day Four ultimately ended up being imprisoned after two long and complicated trials. Each member of the Four represented themselves in trial and made a point to stress that what they did was not a crime, but merely a call to action.
“We believe that what we did was not only legally acceptable but legally required, for citizens to take responsibility for the war crimes of their government,” said Grady. “[We] live in this nation where this war is being waged in our names and unless you make it really clear that it is not being waged in your name then it is being waged in your name.”
Clare Grady is only one out of thousands of peaceful protestors arrested in the past decade. According to a report done by Mother Jones, since the inauguration of President Obama there have been well over 3,000 documented arrests. It is noted that this number is most likely an underestimate as the mainstream media does very little to cover these types of arrests.
Jack and Felice Cohen-Coppa head an online publication called the Nuclear Resister. Since 1980, they have worked to document the arrests of peaceful protestors in anti-war and anti-nuclear demonstrations and their publication is cold, hard proof that these arrests are not a new phenomena.
“Cops breaking up peaceful protest is not a new phenomena, but long-standing historical fact,” said Felice. “Sometimes, such as was the case with the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis in 2008, and the 2012 NATO summit in Chicago, local police get lots of money from the federal government to pay for their repressive tactics and cover any losses from subsequent civil suits over police actions, all in the name of security. In this way, any abuse and illegal arrests by local cops are protected and paid.”
If all citizens have the right to peacefully assembly then why are so many peaceful assemblies ending in arrests or worse?
Professor Patricia Rodriguez argues that there is a trend towards the non-discussion of particular political decisions and the arrests of these protestors is merely a symptom of this larger problem.
Rodriguez recently experienced an encounter with law enforcement in the US during an anti-drone protest. Rodriguez and a group of protestors had not even set foot on the air force base in Syracuse where they intended to protest, when they were surrounded by law enforcement officers who quickly declared them all under arrest for marching without a license. Rodriguez recalls everyone being cornered and police officers preparing to load all the protestors into a bus.
“Meanwhile, other protestors were being arrested individually, quite forcefully, and put into police cars,” said Rodriguez. “It took the arrival of an ACLU lawyer to persuade the police officers to let those who did not want to be arrested walk away from the proximities of the base, while others stayed and were arrested.”
Rodriguez stressed that this type of interference with citizens who are trying to legally and earnestly call attention to issues and policies they do not agree with is becoming harmful to society.
“Peaceful protestors are not the ones committing crimes, and a healthy society is constructed in true dialogue, not in violence on the part of any actor” said Rodriguez. “I see the need to have broader and truly transparent consultation and societal accountability, such that people are not constantly facing obstacles to their participation, but rather that participation is facilitated. What has predominated in the last few decades, particularly, has been corporate influence on policy, rather than popular participation.”
In the cases of both Rodriquez and Grady each arrest was filed under a specific law violation, however the common thread in these three instances seems to be a manipulation of the law by law enforcement officers or their superiors in order to halt peaceful protests in their tracks.
“They didn’t make up any laws to charge us with, there’s some good reason for a trespass charge, we don’t want everyone to be trespassing all over the place, but how its used and when its used is selective,” said Grady. “They always get to pick these laws out when they need to or want to.”
Peaceful protestors have continued to be arrested on a steady basis. However, it is important that these issues continue to be brought into public discourse.
“To me, one reason to protest peacefully up to the point of risking or experiencing arrest is to exercise our right to free speech at the margins of legality, so those margins are not reduced or closed off entirely,” said Coppa “The option is to use our freedoms or lose them.”
Sabrina Dorronsoro is a junior journalism major who would get arrested to protect the polar bears – darn they’re adorable! Email her at sdorron1[at]ithaca.edu.