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Locking Out the Voices of Dissent

Posted on Jul 14, 2013
AP/Mary Altaffer

A Veterans for Peace demonstrator at a Sept. 15, 2012, rally in New York City’s Washington Square Park.

NEW YORK—The security and surveillance state, after crushing the Occupy movement and eradicating its encampments, has mounted a relentless and largely clandestine campaign to deny public space to any group or movement that might spawn another popular uprising. The legal system has been grotesquely deformed in most cities to, in essence, shut public space to protesters, eradicating our right to free speech and peaceful assembly. The goal of the corporate state is to criminalize democratic, popular dissent before there is another popular eruption. The vast state surveillance system, detailed in Edward Snowden’s revelations to the British newspaper The Guardian, at the same time ensures that no action or protest can occur without the advanced knowledge of our internal security apparatus. This foreknowledge has allowed the internal security systems to proactively block activists from public spaces as well as carry out pre-emptive harassment, interrogation, intimidation, detention and arrests before protests can begin. There is a word for this type of political system—tyranny.

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If the state is ultimately successful in preventing us from mobilizing in public spaces, then dissent will mutate from nonviolent mass protests to clandestine and perhaps violent acts of resistance. Some demonstrators have already been branded “domestic terrorists” under the law. The rear-guard effort by a handful of activists to protect our rights to be heard and peaceably assemble is perhaps the most crucial, though unseen, struggle we currently are engaged in with the corporate state. It is a struggle to salvage what is left of our civil society and our right to nonviolent resistance against corporate tyranny. This is why the New York City trial last week of members of Veterans for Peace, along with other activists, took on an importance that belied the simple trespassing charges against them.

The activists were arrested Oct. 7, 2012, while they were placing flowers in 11 vases and reading the names of the dead inscribed on the wall in New York’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial Plaza after the official closing time, 10 p.m. The defiance of the plaza’s official closing time—which appears to be enforced against political activists only—was spawned by a May 1, 2012, protest by Occupy Wall Street activists. The Occupy activists had attempted to hold a meeting in the plaza and been driven out by police. A number of Veterans for Peace activists, most of them veterans of the Vietnam War, formed a line in front of the advancing police that May night and refused to move. They were arrested.

Many of these veterans came back to the plaza on a rainy, windy night in October to protest on the 11th anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan and again assert their right to carry out nonviolent protests in public spaces. They included Jay Wenk, an 86-year-old combat veteran of World War II who served with Gen. George Patton’s Third Army in Europe. When he was arrested Wenk was beating a gong in the downpour as the names of the dead were read. During the October protest 25 people were seized by police for refusing to leave the park after 10 p.m. Twelve went to trail last week. Manhattan Criminal Court Judge Robert Mandelbaum on Friday found the dozen activists guilty. The judge, however, quickly threw out his own verdict, calling the case a “unique circumstance.” “Justice,” he said, “cries out for a dismissal.” His dismissal shuts down the possibility of an appeal.

“The legislative system, the judicial system, the whole national security state that’s invading all of our privacy are taking away our right to dissent,” Dr. Margaret Flowers, one of the defendants, told me on a lunch break during the trial. “But everything that’s happening is happening legally. It’s a slippery slope. People will look at this case and they’re going to say, ‘So what? They were in a park. There was a rule. It was closing. The police arrested them. That makes sense to me!’ And they don’t put it in the bigger context. That’s how all of this is happening. It’s all being justified. The whole system is being flipped on its head. The judicial and law enforcement system should be protecting our rights. We have the right to dissent. It’s in the Bill of Rights. The question is, can we halt that slide for a second, maybe even reverse it a little bit?”


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The executive, legislative and judicial branches of government have been taken over by corporations and used to protect and promote the criminal activity of Wall Street, the destruction of the ecosystem by the fossil fuel industry, the looting of the U.S. Treasury by the banking industry and the corporate seizure of all major centers of power. The primacy of corporate profit trumps our right to a living wage, affordable and adequate health care, the regulation of industry and environmental controls, protection from corporate fraud and abuse, the right to a good and affordable public education, the ability to form labor unions, and having a government that serves the basic needs of ordinary citizens. Our voices, our rights and our aspirations are no longer of concern to the state. And if we try to assert them, the state now has mechanisms in place to shut us down.

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