United State of Emergency: Outlawing Dissent
By Zakk Flash
During the 1967 Six Day War, a series of strict emergency laws were enacted across the Arab World, most notably in Egypt and Syria. Police powers became absolute while constitutional rights were suspended; any non-governmental political activity such as street demonstrations, rallies, protests, and organization of dissident political groups was quickly crushed by the iron fist of dictators. The laws were called temporary defensive measures, emergency acts that would be lifted once the nation was safe again.
The laws were simply left in place. The rulers of Egypt and Syria, content with their power, decided to concede nothing to their citizens. Tens of thousands of people found themselves imprisoned for extended periods of time, simply for demanding the principles of democracy already encoded in their constitutions or being critical of the government. The emergency laws provided these autocratic regimes with the authority to force their will onto to their people without opposition.
H.R. 347/S1794, otherwise known as the “Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011,” passed unanimously in the House and receiving only three negative votes in the Senate, makes it a felony—a crime defined by the federal government as punishable by death or imprisonment in excess of one year—to “enter or remain in” an area designated as “restricted.” The law makes no exception for demonstrators who unknowingly gather outside of federally-designated free-speech zones; you may not have willfully or knowingly done anything other than exercise your free speech and free assembly rights, but if you “in fact” “[impede] or [disrupt] the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions,” you’re going to prison. And since Obama’s ink dried on the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012 and America was declared a battleground, you could be held indefinitely.
When, and if, demonstrators get released from incarceration, they will continue to suffer the long-term legal consequences termed by prisoner-rights advocates as “civil death.” Felons are barred from multitude vocations, associating with certain people or even living in particular areas, ineligible to serve on a jury or receive government assistance, and even denied the right to elect their own public servants. As of 2008, over 5.3 million people in the United States are currently left without the right to vote because of felony disenfranchisement. A sure-fire way of controlling political opposition is to deny it the ability to participate in political life.
Restricted areas spoken of in HR347, interpreted under existing law and court precedents, include any “building or grounds where the President or other person protected by the Secret Service is or will be temporarily visiting” and “a building or grounds so restricted in conjunction with an event designated as a special event of national significance.” This definition, kept intentionally broad and vague, allows anti-protest measures to be applied at the whim of the political elite. Already in Chicago, Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel presides over crippling restrictions on public activity brought as a result of the upcoming NATO conference—and the simultaneous anti-globalization protests—on May 20-21st, 2012.
While the laws were called a temporary response to the G8 summit taking place in Chicago alongside the NATO conference, the Obama White House made a last minute decision to move G8 to the presidential compound at Camp David, a restricted military installation. The laws in Chicago will remain. Draconian laws enacted in the name of national defense in the Other Civil War are nothing new.
On September 14, 2001, President George W. Bush declared a national emergency due to the terrorist attacks of three days earlier. The National Emergencies Act of 1976 requires the President to renew this state of emergency on an annual basis if he wishes it to remain in effect; Bush renewed it every year he was in office and Obama has continued the trend.
According to Harold Relyea, a specialist working for the American government in the Congressional Research Service, the president “may seize property, organize and control the means of production, seize commodities, assign military forces abroad, institute martial law, seize and control all transportation and communication, regulate the operation of private enterprise, restrict travel, and, in a variety of ways, control the lives of United States citizens.”
The nature of neoliberal globalization virtually ensures that fascist cartels will force their monopolies onto unwilling nations or unknowing populations; plurilateral agreements like the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, or ACTA, are created in secret by leaders of a select handful of the wealthiest countries and designed with the intention of forcing them upon developing nations. ACTA includes provisions that profoundly restrict fundamental rights and freedoms, most notably the freedom of expression and communication privacy. It also severely restricts generic drug creation and use in underdeveloped countries. They are nonnegotiable.
Kader Arif, the European parliament’s rapporteur for ACTA, resigned from his position in January 2012 denouncing the treaty "in the strongest possible manner” for having “no inclusion of civil society organizations, a lack of transparency from the start of the negotiations, repeated postponing of the signature of the text without an explanation being ever given, [and] exclusion of the EU Parliament’s demands that were expressed on several occasions in [the] assembly," concluding with his intent to "send a strong signal and alert the public opinion about this unacceptable situation” and refusal to “take part in this masquerade."
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution states:
It is little wonder that HR 347/S1794 has been called by Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI), one of only three members of Congress to vote against the bill, the “First Amendment Rights Eradication Act.” While the NDAA seeks to remove your 4th, 5th and 6th Amendment rights, this newest attack on self-determination is aimed at the heart of 1st Amendment rights including Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Assembly, and Freedom to Petition.
The Supreme Court ruled in Boos v. Barry, 485 U.S. 312, 318 (1988), that protesting outside an embassy was worthy of Constitutional protection, recognizing that freedom of speech, even if it may interfere with normal governmental activity “reflects a ‘profound national commitment’ to the principle” and “‘debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.’”
In 1783, twenty-four year old William Pitt, then the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, was petitioned to change the law based on the “necessity” to save the East India Company from bankruptcy. His reply was brief.
The arguments of a tyrannical Congress would have you believe that HR 347/S1794 is a necessity, that demonstrations against the actions of government and business cause it undue hardship. While the government’s ability to permissibly restrict expressive conduct is limited by reasonable time, place, and manner regulations, the restrictions must, by law, be narrowly tailored to prevent unconstitutional adversity.
Of course, the crypto-fascists in Congress will argue that protecting themselves from the sight of the “unwashed masses” is a compelling state interest. They wouldn’t be incorrect. The nature of power is self-preserving; by surrounding themselves with a no-free-speech zone, the State can continue its self-congratulatory paternalism, content in the false knowledge that they’re “looking out for the little guy.”
Media and communication play a central, perhaps even a defining, role in the ability of police-state measures to pass. Where is the outrage over the state of emergency laws that have gripped this country for almost a dozen years? How can unelected bankers wrest power from leaders in Greece, the birthplace of democracy, while the rest of the world fumbles with “austerity measures” to save their own necks? Consolidation of the global commercial media system can be easily linked to deregulation in the name of neoliberal “progress.”That deregulation—and the resulting monopoly that keeps alternate news sources like Democracy Now! and Al Jazeera English off the air—has allowed only capitalist rhetoric to flourish.
American anarchist Noam Chomsky, long known for his critiques of U.S. policy, has often written about the “manufacture of consent,” something propaganda maven (and Freud nephew) Edward Bernays happily called the art of manipulating people. In his criticism of the global commercial media system, Chomsky posits that mass media, as a profit-driven institution, tends to serve and further the agendas and interests of dominant, elite groups over the social well-being of entire societies. His writing firmly rejects the kinds of censorship that HR 347/S1794 proposes.
What does this mean for us? Simply put, this is not a battle of the Left versus the moderate Right. This is a direct attack on the United States Constitution, a charter written expressly to limit the government’s power over its citizens.
Around the world, the working and middle classes have risen up against the duplicity of their governments, the engineering of political realities by corporate interests, and the social stratification enforced by capitalist exploitation. In the United States, both Occupy Wall Street and the libertarian wing of the Tea Party have demonstrated against the excesses of the US federal government. These protests, however, have been relatively small compared to the injustice being perpetrated upon the American people.
Organized labor has tried to make up for their decline in membership and economic power in recent years by abandoning any pretense of non-partisan organizing and pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars of member dues money into the campaigns of Democrats. The opponents of organized labor are allowed to paint it as a partisan special interest group in the pocket of the Democratic Party. This has proven to be the case for far too long. The Democrats, in turn, have taken labor’s vote as a matter of course and done little to advance the political agenda of the working class. The vast majority of workers who remain outside of traditional unions see no use in joining one; management sees suppression of organization as just another cost of doing business. A return of radical unionization, exemplified by the Industrial Workers of the World call to organize the entire working class into One Big Union to abolish the wage system, would do much to stop the pitting of worker against worker, allowing for people over profit, cooperation over competition. The Preamble to the IWW Constitution still reflects this.
Organized labor can, and should be, a force to reckon with. It cannot do so, however, as long as it continues to blindly support a party that has forgotten the farmers, laborers, labor unions, and minorities that have made up its traditional base. Regardless of whether organized labor feels it must undergo a transitional program from capitalism to participatory economics, it must divorce itself from unwavering allegiance to the Democrats. Labor would be more effective supporting individual politicians who promote a working class agenda, whether they are Green Party, Libertarians, Social Democrats, or independents.
Civil libertarian organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union, the First Amendment Coalition, and the Center for Constitutional Rights have a long history of defending the inalienable rights retained by—as opposed to privileges granted to—citizens of the United States under the Constitution. As nonpartisan organizations, they have the ability to denounce legislators of any camp for transgressions of civil liberties. It is expected that they will use test cases to undermine the illegal laws being propagated by the political elite; as part of a diversity of tactic, these kinds of cases should be applauded, even as the larger movement forges ahead with broader goals. Embracing different tactics allows radical proponents of liberty and democracy to work with mainstream advocacy groups to advance our larger strategy in accordance with our common goals. The Saint Paul Principles provide a framework for that cooperation without sectarian breakdown.
The fiscal conservatives, moderates, and libertarians who make up the Republican base have seen the party of Lincoln hijacked by social conservatives like Leo Strauss, who said the “crisis of our time” was a “permissive egalitarianism” embedded in liberal democracy and neoconservatives like Jeanne Kirkpatrick, who prompted Reagan to give financial and material support to pro-Western authoritarian regimes.
Libertarians and fiscal conservatives have little in common with the state-enforced conservative social policies pushed by the religious right wing that seems to dominate the Republican Party. The interventionist war machine driven by neoconservative thought—to say nothing of the government intrusion into privacy via the Patriot Act, REAL ID, and NSA domestic spying program—runs contrary to principles of state sovereignty and self-determination held in high esteem by traditional conservatism, principles that Thomas Paine instilled into American body politic under the phrase “Common Sense.”
Communist Karl Marx borrowed the term “proletariat” as a description for the working class from the Ancient Roman Empire, whose rulers believed the only contribution the masses could make to Roman society was the ability to raise children to colonize new territories. The crypto-fascist authority today, encompassing both the Democratic and Republican Parties, continues this view; to capitalists, workers are not individuals but only the rungs of a ladder designed to lift them higher on the pyramid scheme of capitalist economics.
H.R. 347/S1794, rightly nicknamed the “First Amendment Rights Eradication Act,” has been passed by both chambers of Congress. It now sits on President Obama’s desk, awaiting his signature. If his capitulation to the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012—and its promise of indefinite detention—is any indication of his future action, he’ll sign it.
This issue transcends traditional party politics. Political opposition will be outlawed immediately. Pro-life rallies will effectively end with ban on public demonstrations, as well as pro-choice demonstrations. The government will not hesitate to prohibit any and all organizations it defines as dissenting or subversive, including alternative parties, labor unions, veterans’ associations, and others. Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party can both kiss the promise of reforming government goodbye.
Congress has already declared America a battleground. They now want to silence us. It is time to bring the battle home.
Dr. Zakk Flash is an anarchist political writer, radical community activist, and editor of the Central Oklahoma Black/Red Alliance (COBRA). He lives in Norman, Oklahoma.