News Analysis

When the anti-war activists were attacked with rubber bullets, sting grenades and tear gas at a peace demonstration at the Port of Oakland, many political observers and activists said that it was a clear message that no protests would be allowed at the port.

In a letter sent to the Oakland Police Department, a number of organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union, People United for a Better Oakland, National Lawyers Guild, and the Bay Area Police Watch, condemned the police action, calling it “outrageous.” Mark Schlosberg of the ACLU said, “There is no justification for this kind of police response that resulted in the serious injury of several protesters and innocent bystanders” – longshoremen waiting to go into work.

Even though this is one of the first reported violent attack against anti-Iraq war demonstrators by the forces of “law and order,” it is not the first attempt to curtail the First Amendment rights of peace activists. A growing number of local governments have been attempting to put laws and ordinances into place that would limit the right to dissent publicly.

The worst of these is a bill in the Oregon State Senate which makes a person guilty of the crime of “terrorism” if he or she engages in, or is part of, a group where at least one participant tries “to disrupt” transportation, commerce, schools or governmental institutions.

The bill, introduced by John Minnis, the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, would force the courts to apply a minimum sentence of 25 years, without the possibility of parole, up to life imprisonment.

The Eugene, Ore., daily, The Register-Guard, criticized the bill as unnecessary and said that it’s definition of a terrorist “might have sent a grandmother protesting cuts to the Oregon Health Plan … off to the big house for a minimum of 25 years.”

After protests started Minnis himself said that the law was unconstitutionally broad and the definition of a terrorist was changed. David J. Fidanque, executive director of the Oregon ACLU, testified before the Judiciary Committee and said that the new definition of a terrorist was “as broad as that proposed in the original bill.” Susan Russell of the Oregon Defense Lawyers Association agreed with him.

The bill would also permit the police to spy on people’s organizations as long as the reason was to investigate “terrorism.” Fidanque said the law “would open the door to widespread political surveillance by state and local law enforcement and it would encourage racial, ethnic and religious profiling.”

In Massachusetts a less draconian but equally chilling bill has been proposed by the minority leader of the State Senate, Brian Lees. Lees’ bill would fine any protesters for blocking streets and make those arrested pay the cost of the arresting police officer plus court costs. Lees made it clear that the bill is aimed at peace activists when he said he was “sick of [anti-war] protesters.”

Leaders from United for Justice with Peace, and anti-war coalition of 30 organizations, have criticized the bill. Eric Weltman of Citizens for Participation in Political Action, said that the Republican State Senator is attempting to “discourage dissent” and “create an atmosphere of fear.”

In Tucson, Ariz., the city government tried to pass a Parade and Assembly Ordinance, which would have restricted marches and rallies. The ordinance would have left it up to the chief of police whether a group could have a permit to march in the street. While no permit is necessary to have a march on a public sidewalk opponents said that the police will be able to stop any demonstration if any of the people decide to walk in the street instead of the sidewalk.

The Tucson ordinance would also have prohibited any demonstration during the morning or evening rush hours.

In Attleboro, Mass., Mayor Judith Robbins is proposing changes in the city’s ordinances to make it illegal to have a silent vigil on city sidewalks. Current law requires a permit to have any gatherings or assemblies in the public squares or in the streets. The proposed ordinance came after pro-war demonstrators held a rally opposite a group of peace activists holding an early morning silent vigil. Peace activists have been holding the vigils for over a month.

The Sun Chronicle, a local newspaper, opposed the new ordinance saying, “There have been many cases in the nation’s history in which authorities have used seemingly benign laws to suppress unpopular speech and unpopular groups. It’s better to err on the side of protecting our freedoms.”

Jose A. Cruz is the editor of Nuestro Mundo. He can be reached at jacruz@attbi.com

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