By Chris Hedges
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.
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?”
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.
Tarak Kauff, a 71-year-old veteran of the Army’s 111th Airborne and former professional boxer, was one of the organizers of the Oct. 7 protest. He has been on a hunger strike for more than a month to express solidarity with the hunger strikers at Guantanamo Bay and in the Pelican Bay prison in California. He was gaunt. His skin was ashen and his cheeks sunken. He consumes 300 liquid calories a day and has lost 24 pounds. He was arrested in May and again in October.
“I saw clearly that the purpose of the arrest was not merely enforcing the 10 p.m. curfew,” he said of the May arrests, “but the purpose was very specific in restricting the right of assembly. We decided that October 7th would be a perfect day to do it. It was 11 years of war in Afghanistan. So when we came to the Vietnam Veterans Plaza that night we had four purposes. One was to call for an end to the war, the ongoing war in Afghanistan. The second was to call for an end to all U.S. wars of empire. The third was to remember and lament those who had fallen and been wounded in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, including the civilians, including the 5 million civilians in Vietnam. The fourth was to affirm our right to assemble. If we lose the right to address these issues and to organize in public places, we have absolutely nothing.”
“I’m fasting because it’s a sacrifice,” he said when I asked about his hunger strike. “I want to encourage other people in our movement of the necessity of sacrifice. If we want to establish anything, if we want to re-establish or ever establish any kind of democratic system, it’s not going to happen without sacrifice, some kind of sacrifice. And we have a choir. I want to see that choir inspired to start sacrificing more, to take risks. We have to be willing to put our bodies on the line in some way, shape, or form, nonviolently.”
According to several of the activists, some of the police officers said that they too were military veterans and disliked making the arrests but had been told by their superiors to take the demonstrators into custody to prevent another Occupy encampment.
“ ‘We can’t let you stay,’ ” Kauff said he was told by a police captain. “ ‘It sets a bad example for the Occupy movement.’ ”
“After the process of being arrested began, a police lieutenant told me the Occupy Wall Street people really screwed this up for you guys,” Sam Adams, who served in the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam, said in his courtroom testimony. “You can thank them for this.”
The trial was a tiny window into how rattled the state was by Occupy, unfortunately now in disarray. The security organs know that as conditions worsen for the majority of Americans, as austerity cuts and chronic unemployment and underemployment drive tens of millions of families into desperation, as climate change continues to produce extreme and dangerous weather, there remains the threat of another popular backlash. The problem lies not, of course, with the Occupy movement, but with the reconfiguration of the government into a handmaiden of corporations that seek to squeeze profits out of the dying carcass of empire.
The corporate state’s quest to control all power includes using the military to carry out domestic policing, which is why I sued the president over Section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act. It is imperative to defend, as the activists did in New York City, what freedoms and rights we have left. If we remain passive, if we permit the state to continue to use the law to take away our right of political expression, we will have no legal protection of resistance when we will need it most.
A Veterans for Peace demonstrator at a Sept. 15, 2012, rally in New York City’s Washington Square Park.