The First Amendment--Amended
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
To the 20,000 to 30,000 demonstrators in Washington, D.C. on April 15-17, the above words no longer represent the immutable fact that the government guarantees essential constitutional freedoms to all citizens. Although Congress did not pass a law, freedom of speech was denied, the right of the people to peaceably assemble was violated, and all petitions for a redress of grievances were ignored and suppressed. As most Americans know, three separate branches of government create, enforce and interpret the law. In this case, the executive branch broke the supreme law of the land.
Most demonstrations in the capital, even those much larger than the ones against the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, are allowed and occasionally welcomed by government officials. The reaction to the ones on April 16-17 was different. On Saturday, April 15, the police shut down the protestors' Convergence Center under the pretext of fire code violations. To paraphrase D.C. Police Chief Charles Ramsey's explanation, this was done because he cared about the demonstrators' safety. The 1,350 arrests, the tear gas and pepper spray, the beatings, the denial of legal and human rights to those arrested, the intimidation, surveillance and sabotage must be Ramsey's version of "tough love."
The Convergence Center raid was neither the beginning nor the end of the attempts to suppress the demonstrators' message. On Sunday, with dozens of men and women "locked down" at the intersection of Pennsylvania Ave. and 21st St., I witnessed police try to run over the protestors with motorcycles. Later, they tried the same thing at the permitted rally on the Ellipse, this time using horses for the charge. The violence grew worse on Monday. I was at K and 18th St. when, unprovoked, police fired tear gas and went on a rampage clubbing demonstrators as they tried to get away. Eventually, the intersection was completely militarized, with over 100 police, the National Guard and a small tank securing the area. Elsewhere, tear gas, pepper spray and clubs were being used liberally on nonviolent demonstrators.
The mainstream media did not discuss how IMF and World Bank policies make poor countries much poorer with structural adjustment programs. Instead, they chose to ridicule the protestors as a bunch of misguided youngsters, "a ragtag band of '60s recidivists and assorted 'activists'" as Washington Post pundit Jonathan Yardley so cleverly put it. If this is true, would that explain why police closed off 90 square blocks downtown for a few bankers? Why did D.C., under fiscal strain, spend $5 million to arm and train 1,500 police, federal marshals and FBI agents with Robocop riot gear and non-lethal chemical weapons? Why were 1,350 arrested for exercising their freedom of speech? Was this ragtag band truly so threatening with their cries of "People before Profits!" and "This is what democracy looks like!" or their constant emphasis on nonviolence?
Yes, this ragtag band is a threat--to corporate power. They are a threat because if they succeed in getting people to hear their message, corporations and banks may lose billions of dollars by having to obey the tariff, labor, consumer and environmental laws of other nations and by canceling debts accumulated by mostly corrupt dictators but paid for by the poor. Because large amounts of money and power are at stake, the government decided to temporarily suspend the First Amendment until the threat passed. The police were not upholding the law, but taking sides, and breaking the supreme law of the land. As one protestor explained to me,
"The police force is the army of those in power, the domestic military that keeps control, and as the people take to the streets to fight that control and to fight the status quo and to fight the power imbalances and the income imbalances, the people in power are gonna do everything they can to hold that power."
Now, the people in power have gone as far as violating the rights to free speech and assembly that are fundamental to real democracy, and most important when they are used to protest a great injustice. When police disregard the First Amendment, they take away the peoples' right to govern themselves democratically and to promote important political and social change. While millions suffer from policies that can be changed simply by political will power, concerned American citizens faced tactics meant to intimidate them and smother their voices.
You say, what about the delegates' right to freedom of assembly? This is an important question. First, the delegates can assemble at almost any time, and everyone should understand that the protests on April 16 and 17 were less about shutting down a meeting than they were about raising awareness and sending a message to the rest of the country. The actions were not an attempt to restrict freedom, but to prompt a serious discussion about globalization. There was no other way for the people to be heard since the media never questions the benevolence of the IMF and World Bank. Second, the IMF and World Bank are policy-making institutions that are unaccountable and undemocratic even though they exercise more power in the world economy than Congress. Just as Americans do not want their government to make major decisions without the consent of the public, they should not want the IMF and World Bank to make decisions without all voices being heard. Finally, the IMF and World Bank use violent police to shield them from the public eye. The protestors are non-violent and desire an open discussion about IMF and World Bank policies. However, the government only granted First Amendment rights to wealthy bankers, but withheld them from anyone who challenged the bankers' and corporations' power.
Democracy, freedom and capitalism are defining characteristics of American culture. But when unregulated capitalism conflicts with democracy and the First Amendment, democratic rights and civil liberties must always take priority. There is nothing more American than these freedoms, not even the economic system. So, even if you disagree with the protestors' message, perhaps you will agree that you have a right to hear their message without the protestors being threatened with arrest or violence. The First Amendment is the most important law that we have, and if we tolerate the police actions in D.C., the Constitution is nothing more than an old piece of paper, and its words cannot be taken seriously.