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Freedom of Assembly is Sick
by Maximilian Pichl and Doug Henwood
Thursday Apr 16th, 2020 4:31 PM
For decades, this country was governed as if the climate crisis were a myth. However, it favors natural disasters and diseases that are difficult or impossible to treat. The denial of these problems and the refusal to deal with the destructive effects of capitalism are the reason why the USA is particularly ill-equipped to face future challenges.
Freedom of assembly is sick
Restrictions on freedom of assembly rarely serve to prevent infection

Political demonstrations and rallies are currently prohibited almost without exception with reference to infection control. However, official measures often do not serve to contain the pandemic.

by Maximilian Pichl
No mouthguard, no minimum distance: The police neglected the protection against infection when they broke up a demonstration of the organisation Seebrücke in Frankfurt am Main

[This article published on 4/16/2020 is translated from the German on the Internet,]

These are bad times for those who want to demonstrate. A human chain of supporters of the organization Seebrücke in Frankfurt am Main, whose participants kept a minimum distance of two meters, was broken up, in part violently, by police last Sunday. The police also injured an editor of Neues Deutschland. Some participants in a bicycle demonstration in the St. Pauli district of Hamburg, which was intended to draw attention to the situation of refugees in Greek camps, were fined 150 euros each on the grounds that they had taken part in a forbidden meeting. Last week, the health department of the Berlin district of Neukölln banned a demonstration in favor of keeping the neighborhood pub "Syndikat", despite the fact that the organizers wanted to keep contact restrictions to contain the Covid-19 pandemic by wearing mouthguards and keeping a safe distance. The city of Frankfurt am Main even banned a motorcycle parade to protest against military armament on Easter Monday. The list of officially prohibited and prohibited rallies could be continued. Never before in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany have so many political assemblies been banned.

Courts argue that meetings could be held later. But it is not foreseeable how long the state of emergency will last, and many social struggles are urgent.

The authorities refer to the Infection Protection Act and the implementing regulations of the federal states. Paragraph 28(1) of the Infection Protection Act provides, among other things, for a restriction of freedom of assembly in order to enforce protective measures against the spread of infection. However, the federal states and municipalities apply the law very differently. In Münster, opponents of nuclear power could not hold a meeting against a uranium transport, but last week the regulatory authorities allowed a vigil with hygienic conditions. And while the city-state of Bremen only reserves the right to impose conditions on itself at meetings in order to guarantee protection against infection, there are implicit or explicit assembly bans in almost all other federal states, as can be seen from a presentation by lawyers Stefan Martini and Michael Plöse on the blog

Many assembly bans give the impression that the official measures are not directly related to infection control. In the majority of banned gatherings, the participants intended to keep their distance, wear a mouthguard or use vehicles and thus avoid the possibility of physical contact. Nevertheless, the police authorities proceeded rigorously. Some measures seem to be mere harassment. Empty shoes that protesters had distributed in front of the Brandenburg Gate to call for the evacuation of refugees from the Greek islands were immediately removed by the police. To what extent these shoes could have spread the virus in a deserted place remains the secret of the police.
Lawyers' associations, human rights organizations and legal scholars in particular criticize the suspension of freedom of assembly. The Greens and the Left Party demand that health protection be reconciled with freedom of assembly. The German Federation of Trade Unions (DGB) has already announced that it will not hold rallies in public places on "Labour Day" on 1 May, but will broadcast a live program in the social media.

Going to court to demand the fundamental right to freedom of assembly has not proved helpful. Many court decisions adopt more or less uncritically the assessment of the state governments and regulatory authorities, which classify practically every form of public political protest as a health hazard. The "Gesellschaft für Freiheitsrechte" writes in an expert opinion that such an understanding of fundamental rights threatens to "undermine the freedom of assembly, in particular the right to self-determination contained therein".

While political freedoms are thus abolished, entrepreneurial freedoms continue to apply, despite the lockdown in many industries. According to reports by Taz and Le Monde diplomatique, the online mail order company Amazon, a beneficiary of the current crisis, is failing to ensure the health protection of its own employees in many of its factories and warehouses. Although workplaces are regarded as sources of infection, the state does not intervene in the regulatory policy of the operators of large warehouses, for example.

Some court rulings argue that the containment measures are temporary and that meetings can be held later. But firstly, it is incalculable how long and in what form the state of emergency will last. And secondly, many social struggles are urgent. Tens of thousands of refugees are still being crammed into the EU hotspots on the Greek islands under inhumane and unhygienic conditions. Spreading the virus there could lead to disaster. The rights of employees are also being curtailed considerably at present, for example because collective bargaining has been cancelled or because the Working Hours Ordinance from the Ministry of Labor of Hubertus Heil (SPD) allows maximum working hours of up to twelve hours in "systemically important professions" such as nursing care. Many companies are also currently restructuring their operations to the detriment of the employees or suspending hard-won work reductions. In the private sector in particular, it can be assumed that many of the measures taken from the state of emergency will continue to apply after the crisis.

In a famous landmark decision in 1985 in the course of the protests against the Brokdorf nuclear power plant, the Federal Constitutional Court expressly emphasized the importance of freedom of assembly for political struggles: "Large associations, financially strong donors or mass media can exert considerable influence, while the citizen tends to feel powerless. In a society in which direct access to the media and the opportunity to express oneself through them is limited to a few, the individual, apart from his or her organized participation in parties and associations, generally only has collective influence by exercising freedom of assembly for demonstrations". This inequality of political expression, as established by the Federal Constitutional Court, is even more evident in the Corona crisis: while the channels of the capital fractions and other socially powerful groups remain open, for example through direct lobbying of parliament and government or contributions to opinion in the mass media, political assemblies are banned almost everywhere. Even digital campaigns cannot replace social struggles in the public sphere and in companies.


"We are only at the beginning of this crisis"
A conversation with Doug Henwood about the political and economic consequences of the corona crisis in the USA

Doug Henwood is an economic analyst, author and financial trader and co-editor of the left-wing magazine "The Nation". He publishes the newsletter "Left Business Observer", which analyzes business and politics from a left-wing perspective. With Phillipa Dunne, he is co-owner and co-editor of "The Liscio Report", a newsletter for macroeconomic analysis.

[This interview published on 4/16/2020 is translated from the German on the Internet, »Wir stehen erst am Anfang dieser Krise«.}

How is life in New York City these days?

Most of us who don't have to do essential work are at home. Nobody seems to know how to get back from the lockdown phase to normality, whatever that normality will be. It's frightening.

How would you characterize the US government's response to the pandemic so far?

Too little, too late. US President Donald Trump says he does not want to build up mass testing capabilities. But how do you get back to any kind of normality without a working mechanism of testing, case tracking and quarantine? The economic rescue package is comprehensive, but it is primarily economic in nature. There are no problems with the supply chains for food and other basic services yet, but it will probably be difficult in the coming weeks. Smithfield Foods, one of the country's largest slaughterhouses, was closed indefinitely after almost 300 employees tested positive for Covid-19; the CEO warned that the pandemic would threaten the country's meat supply.

What is the population's power to act?

Many people are very insecure. They don't know whether they will fall ill or be able to pay their bills. Because of the restrictions, protest can be difficult to articulate. But one reason why schools were closed in New York was that parents and teachers announced that they would no longer send their children or teach them. Despite the weakness of the unions in this country, workers at Amazon stopped working because of the unsafe working conditions. There were also strikes at companies such as the delivery service Instacart or the organic supermarket chain Wholefoods, which is owned by Amazon. About a third of the tenants did not pay their rent in April, partly organized, partly spontaneously. That is quite unusual in this country.

"Some believe the crash could be reversed as quickly as it started. I have my doubts."

What's happening in the US economy right now?

An enormous number of people have lost their jobs. We won't know how high unemployment is in April until May, but between 12 and 15 million people have applied for the newly introduced unemployment benefits in recent weeks. The unemployment rate has probably risen from under four percent in February to between ten and 15 percent - and it will continue to rise, up to 25 percent is expected. After the stock market crash of 1929, it took about four years for unemployment to rise from three to 25 percent. Right now, a crisis of similar magnitude is being compressed into a few months. That is breathtaking. Some believe that the crash can be reversed as quickly as it began. I have my doubts.

What's wrong with that?

Many small businesses such as restaurants or retailers and even many larger corporations cannot survive for several months without income. Many large companies in the United States have incurred large debts in the past five to seven years that they cannot now service. Their lenders will have problems if these debts are not paid. Individuals and companies cannot pay rent. Landlords will not be able to pay mortgages with the banks. We are only at the beginning of this crisis. The damage will be immense and not so easy to repair.

Doesn't that mean that rescue packages are the right way to go?

What really bothers me is that the Federal Reserve Bank and the US Treasury are putting in huge public funds to restore the status quo before the crisis. It's crazy. The public that is funding these huge efforts with its taxes should get something in return. By this I mean, for example, a reorganization of the financial system. We need one that is not highly speculative, but serves basic needs and provides savings accounts and loans. Nobody needs hedge funds or private equity funds. Why not nationalize the banking system?

Surely one could ask for something useful there.
The crisis could be an opportunity - whether this is actually used is another matter. It would be the perfect time to introduce a uniform state health insurance system. Many people have health insurance policies that are tied to their jobs and are now losing both. Even before this, an extremely large number of people had no or very poor health insurance. There were some early Covid-19 patients who were billed $35,000 for their treatment. Very few people saved that much. Most get into debt and suffer for many years.

Isn't it ironic that Bernie Sanders had to admit defeat in the Democratic Party primaries at the very moment when his issues - health and the situation of the working population - became more relevant than ever?

The New Yorker magazine, which is something of the liberal bible in this country, had a headline a few days ago: "Reality proved Bernie Sanders right." We would need a whole different healthcare system that wasn't based on maximizing profits. We have elitist private clinics that cater to wealthy patients, while hospitals in rural areas and poor neighborhoods are closing down. The poor in particular often suffer from pre-existing conditions, which is why the pandemic is particularly devastating in the African American population and in the South. There would now be an opportunity to organize things differently where they are dysfunctional, as in the US energy sector.

Why does the pandemic affect the energy sector?

The fracking industry is in crisis because of the drastic drop in oil prices. Fracking is only worthwhile when oil prices are high because the production costs are enormous. Trump wants to save this industry. One of his best friends, Harold Hamm, is heavily involved in the fracking business. It would be the perfect moment to abandon an industry that is highly questionable and destructive from an environmental point of view. We need to get away from fossil fuels. Air quality in Los Angeles and other cities has improved tremendously because there are fewer cars on the road. Overall, there would be a great opportunity to make this society more humane.

Economically, the US was doing better than ever before before the crisis, the president said.

That is humbug. The US economy has never really recovered from the recession after 2007. This and the weak recovery have led to a permanent loss of income of several thousand dollars for private households. Now, to make matters worse, the chasms between the classes that have long been there are more obvious than ever.

Why is this crisis hitting the US so hard?

Decades of neoliberal economic policy have completely starved what was once state welfare and health care, especially at the local and state levels. As a result, there is a lack of much more than just ventilators and intensive care units. For decades, this country was governed as if the climate crisis were a myth. However, it favors natural disasters and diseases that are difficult or impossible to treat. The denial of these problems and the refusal to deal with the destructive effects of capitalism are the reason why the USA is particularly ill-equipped to face future challenges.

After initially denying the dangers of Covid-19, the government has changed course. How is this to be assessed?

The country is ruled by very incompetent people with a very narrow nationalist perspective. It looks like Trump is trying to win the election by campaigning against China. This is fuelling anti-Chinese and anti-Asian sentiments. The President has recently been using very militaristic language in connection with the pandemic. We are in a "war with the virus", which he often calls "the Chinese virus". A few weeks ago, the US military tested missiles off the Chinese coast to show the Chinese where the ball is in their court. It's crazy, the US government should be cooperating with China right now.

I mean, right now Trump is more popular in the U.S. than he was before.

It all depends on what polls you read. In most of them, Joe Biden is way ahead of him. But a lot will happen before the election in November.

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