Silencing Occupy

By LANCE TAPLEY  |  March 14, 2012

Although a spokesman for the Secret Service wouldn't comment to the Phoenix on the elimination of "willfully" in HR 347, he says the new law represents only "a technical change."

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Protest Pens and National Special Security Events

How bad the amended Section 1752 is, of course, depends on how it's enforced. Occupy Boston activist-attorney Deborah Butler is struck by the "deliberately ambiguous" language in the law, which allows for "selective enforcement."

"Disrupt the orderly conduct of government business." Is being noisy disruptive, she asks? "Proximity." "Is that 15 feet or 50 feet? Or so close that we can hear you?" And conspiring to do something also can be very ambiguous.

These aren't academic questions. Butler recalls demonstrating at a New Hampshire Republican presidential primary debate in January when the 500 protesters — including a 12-piece marching band — were herded into a "protest pen" in a back parking lot far from the candidates.

In an Orwellian phrasing, the authorities call protest pens "free-speech zones," though they often are far from the news media as well as the objects of the protest. Butler calls them "unfree-speech zones of temporary incarceration."

Protest pens and restricted areas aren't only used where the Secret Service is present. Local police, using trespass or disorderly-conduct laws, commonly use them to restrict protests. And they can be instant and unadvertised, in which case they are known as "pop-up" restricted zones.

On October 1 in New York, 700 Occupy Wall Street marchers on the Brooklyn Bridge were herded into buses and taken to jail. Many said they had been led onto the roadway by the police and then arrested. Verheyden-Hilliard, who is legal director of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund in Washington, is suing the city on their behalf. Nationally, more than 6700 people have been arrested in Occupy actions since last September.

The big protest targets this year — like the Group of Eight (G-8) and NATO meetings and the presidential conventions — are likely to see the greatest use of protest pens and pop-up restricted areas. Such big events are usually designated National Special Security Events (NSSEs) by the Secretary of Homeland Security, the Secret Service's boss.

The ACLU's Rottman says Homeland Security has huge discretion in designating NSSEs. And the restrictions of the newly revised Section 1752 anti-protest law apply to these events regardless of whether a Secret Service–protected dignitary is present. In fact, every Super Bowl since 9/11 has been declared an NSSE.

Here come the people

As the weather warms up, big and small protests — not just Occupy re-encampments — are being planned and already are taking place. Occupy Boston has called for a "national day of action" on April 4 to support public transportation. Occupy Providence recently demonstrated for a financial transactions tax. Occupy Augusta protested outside the offices of Maine's most prominent corporate lobbyists.

Nationally, Occupy Chicago is celebrating after forcing the May 18-19 G-8 summit to be abruptly switched to Camp David, the president's wooded Maryland retreat, in order to minimize the protests. But Chicago's May 20-21 NATO meeting still gives activists a big bull's-eye.

In what could herald a dramatic turn toward radical action within the progressive mainstream, moveon.org and the 99% Spring coalition of more than 50 groups, including big unions like the United Auto Workers, have announced they will train 100,000 people in direct action and nonviolent civil disobedience.

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