The First Amendment: Good When You Can Get It

The First Amendment: Good When You Can Get It

by David Rovics

David Rovics is a singer-songwriter who tours regularly throughout North America, Europe, and occasionally elsewhere. He has peformed in Scotland on a number of occasions, most recently in Edinburgh in January 2007. His website is www.davidrovics.com

The organizers with United for Peace and Justice and all of those participating have once again pulled off a giant protest march and rally. As has happened every few months since the invasion of Afghanistan, hundreds of thousands of people have converged for a national protest, this time in Washington, DC.

The major media outlets decided this time that the protest was worth covering. This time it was aired on CSPAN, reviewed by the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and the Houston Chronicle, and even recognized as the socially diverse crowd that it was – young and old, veteran activists and first-time protesters, soccer moms and socialists.

As usual, crowd estimates given by the major media varied wildly from "thousands" to "tens of thousands" to "just under 100,000." Some, including the New York Times, dared mention one estimate of 400,000. This is particularly notable since the NY Times was one of the many outlets guilty of barely reporting on past protests, and frequently using vague terms like "thousands" when reporting on crowds that had virtually filled Central Park.

I missed this rally, being on tour on the other side of the Atlantic this time around. But looking at it from afar, it seems to have been a model event. UFPJ was given a permit to have a march and a rally. The masses descended, and the major media took note, at least to some degree reflecting the reality that could be seen by anyone present – that there are a lot of people in the US against the war.

For people attending or reading about this weekend's anti-war protest, there are certain assumptions that could be made, that the media also seems to be confirming:

It may or may not make much difference, since democracy is mostly about voting, but we have a First Amendment which guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. When there's a really big national protest like this, you will hear about it in the mass media.

Reading the corporate media over the years and listening to the government spokespeople as well, certain other assumptions are clearly to be understood:

If it wasn't reported, it must not have been very big or significant. If there is any violence at a protest, it was probably started by protesters. Protests are dangerous places with lots of angry people at them who generally don't really understand what they're angry about. For some reason because of the "war on terror," we have to have more police security at protests since 9/11, since terrorists might target or take advantage of otherwise non-terroristic protests. There is some kind of relationship between protest and terror. As we know from our history books, since the Civil Rights movement the authorities have learned from their violent excesses in the past, and now when civilians commit acts of nonviolent civil disobedience, they are gingerly carried off by the police. Police do not attack nonviolent protesters without provocation.

Of course, all of these assumptions are false. For those of us who regularly find ourselves on or near the front lines of dissent in the US, this is obvious. But for every one of us like that, there are hundreds more sympathizers. People like most of my extended family and I'll bet many of yours, who are against the war, against much of what Bush stands for, but they haven't quite made it to a protest or done much else to make their views clear, at least not in several decades. Or if they have done something, they've been one of the millions over the past several years who have been to one protest, and not managed to get to another. So very likely they don't have a very firm picture of what goes on out there in the land of free expression.

CNN's polls have supported the notion for years that most of the country is against the war and not supportive of the president. Yet most of the protests are barely reported by CNN, if at all. And if they are reported, they are rarely given the time necessary to show how the protest movement truly represents civil society. If you weren't there, you probably wouldn't know it happened.

And if you weren't involved somehow with the organizing of the event, you'd be unlikely to know that the organizers were given a permit to march but not to rally, or to rally but not to march, or were given no permit at all for any central location. Or that the police were penning people into cages who wished to protest. Or that many people were not even being allowed into the cages in the first place.

Or that people committing acts of nonviolent civil disobedience, or in some cases just walking down the sidewalk, were being tear-gassed, beaten with clubs, shot with rubber bullets and electric tazer guns, crushed with horses, held in unsanitary prison cells. That protest organizers' houses were being raided by police, beaten bloody, computers and cameras stolen. That spaces rented by protesters had been attacked by the police, with everything inside the building being seized. That people were being attacked frequently for the crime of riding bicycles in groups.

And that all of this had been going on under the false pretense of security since long before 9/11.

I thought I'd recount some of my personal experiences with protest, speech and the First Amendment over the past decade or so, as illustrations of how things tend to go, in the hopes that some readers might find these stories illuminating.

For those of us who come with what might be called the "radical narrative" of history, it all starts with an understanding that democracy largely happens in the streets, and that the rights we have only exist if we continue to fight for them, otherwise they are taken away. It starts with the understanding that the 20th century began with the authorities brutalizing and arresting thousands of people every week for giving pro-labor speeches on the sidewalk. With the criminalizing millions of members of the IWW (the Industrial Workers of the World) by calling them "German agents" because they called World War I a "bosses' war." Many opponents of the war were jailed for years, including socialist leader Eugene Victor Debs, who won a million votes for president of the US while in prison for his anti-war views.

It starts with the historical understanding that we live in a class society which operates under the golden rule – those who have the gold make the rules, and everybody else has to stand up for their rights by other means. Those who have the gold declare the wars, consistently lie about the real purpose of the war, and profit from the war. Those without the gold fight and die in the wars.

It starts with the understanding, also, that the smooth operation of any society requires that most people do not see history and reality this way. That efforts will be made on the part of the powers-that-be to prevent this from happening. And that if it seems this kind of awareness is spreading, and manifesting itself on the streets, one frequent way to deal with this is through disinformation or omission of information, and both subtle and overt forms of repression.

February 15th, 2003 was an interesting case. Many of us already knew about the imperial intentions of the US in Iraq, and didn't need to see the disaster unfold before we knew invading Iraq was a terrible idea. The protests worldwide involved many millions of people, including all over the US. Half a million people, maybe more, were flooding into New York City. It was a bitterly cold, windy winter day.

The NYPD had denied UFPJ a right to march. Citing security as a concern, the police created pens for each block, to make sure it was impossible to march. A block away from the pens, the police were sending thousands of people walking dozens of blocks in order to then be turned away from entering the rally area there. It seemed from my observation that perhaps half the people trying to go to the rally weren't able to get in.

As with most of the major anti-war rallies in the past several years, most of the people coming to the February 15th rally hadn't been to a protest since the 60's, or ever. For those of us who had, the police behavior was outrageous, but not surprising. For many of the well-dressed, middle-aged folks from the suburbs or further afield coming in, the way the rally was being controlled by the police was shocking, and many of them gave the cops a good piece of their minds.

A year later the NYPD this time prevented organizers from holding a rally, only allowing a very controlled march during the Republican National Convention. This time the hundreds of thousands of people attempting to represent civil society and engage in their right to assemble were told we would damage the grass on Central Park if we held a rally there on New York's commons, where so many other events had been held through the years.

On another occasion more recently, a permit to march was only granted when organizers threatened to march without a permit anyway. And what of the 100,000 or so people who protested the war in Afghanistan in Washington in April, 2002? Or the 300,000 or so who protested the wars in September, 2005? These were massive events, huge undertakings for many organizers and many communities from around the country. Each person at each of these rallies represents a hundred more who didn't make it. But they got a fraction of the media coverage that this most recent one has received.

February 15th, 2003 and January 27th, 2007 will at least for some time be a part of the memories of many people, including the media consumers who far outnumber the many people who were actually in attendance. But for these other equally massive outpourings of national discontent with the regime that were hardly covered? If you weren't there, they may as well not have happened. They do not enter into the national discourse any more than current events in Micronesia.

And if this is how our right to assemble is dealt with, what of those following the Gandhi-MLK tradition of nonviolent civil disobedience?

When people think of the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999, the popular imagination is filled with images of young people dressed in black trashing Starbucks and McDonalds in downtown Seattle. A couple hundred people participated in this activity, and it has not been repeated to any significant extent at any protests in the US since then. Most of the other 60,000 people protesting in Seattle miles away from downtown were being drenched with tear gas for sitting in on the streets, nonviolently surrounding the WTO meetings taking place in the Seattle Center. But as usual, as soon as anyone started throwing rocks somewhere in town, this was to be the media's primary focus.

Many people in the US feel in some way that everything changed after 9/11. But in terms of a nation-wide campaign of disinformation and repression against an activist community, the WTO protests were the bellwether event of recent years. What had been local campaigns of various sorts against rapacious corporations had grown into a nationwide (and already international) movement against corporate globalization in general. The corporate media responded with fear-mongering and disinformation, and the authorities responded with repression.

For years after Seattle, the disproportionality of the reaction of the local and federal authorities was at times comical. Anybody who was on the right email lists leading up to Seattle knew it was gonna be big. Anybody on the right email lists knew the protests at the IMF/World Bank meetings in Washington, DC the following April (A16) was also going to be significant. Anybody on those lists would also have known that the May 1st protests calling for the shutting down of the Stock Exchange on Wall Street was going to be small, but Mayor Giuliani was taking no chances.

The day began with what was being billed as a march for undocumented workers. Several thousand Latino men, women and children marched, flanked by what appeared to be almost an equal number of cops. As I recall, the cops stood on either side of the march, two rows deep on each side. Most of the cops were also about a foot taller than most of the marchers. These marchers had a broad and thorough understanding of their role in this society. The most popular sign on the march, in English, read simply "workers of the world, unite."

This march was clearly never intended to be anything but a peaceful march with no plans for civil disobedience. What was at some point intended to follow the march was perhaps some kind of action, which I don't think had ever gotten much beyond the planning stages, probably because most of the organizers were too busy with A16, which had just taken place two weeks before in DC.

In any case, to deal with the 200 or so anarchist youth who ostensibly wished to shut down Wall Street, several thousand police were literally tripping over themselves in the streets, which were awash with motorcycles, paddy wagons, and bored cops feeling pretty stupid with nothing to do. In preparation for the shutting down of Wall Street the cops had actually shut down the entire business district around Wall Street, looking at the ID of workers and residents wanting to cross police lines. Groups of police were deployed to guard every nearby Starbucks or other corporate chain store, as well as the World Trade Center and other places they thought might be potential hotspots.

It was two weeks before then that police in Washington, DC had mass-arrested 600 or so people for daring to hold an unpermitted march. This happened in the days leading up to the IMF/World Bank meetings, so the cops held everybody over the weekend to keep them away from the protests.

On the first day of the meetings themselves, 20,000 or so people surrounded the large area of town the police had walled off. The organizers of the meetings had to bus delegates in during the wee hours of the morning, and other delegates were stuck driving around the city for hours looking for a way in.

Police behavior there didn't descend to the kind of wanton brutality of Seattle, but I personally was walking past a group from Arizona who had taken over one street, and witnessed an unmarked police van just drive into and through the group. One man was on the ground. At first it was unclear whether he was injured, but he had apparently gotten pushed to the side, rather than underneath the van. The group quickly reassembled their line afterwards.

That week in DC the police raided the main convergence center for the protesters and confiscated all of the puppets and other artistic representations people had been working on. They did the same thing in Philadelphia a few months later leading up to the Republican National Convention there in 2000. By the time of the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, and given the well-deserved reputation for corruption and brutality of the LAPD, the US Justice Department was actually involved with overseeing the police for the occasion, and specifically ordered them not to steal the puppets this time.

No event was too small or too large to warrant the hysteria of the corporate media when it came to "anti-globalization" protesters. "The anarchists from Seattle are going to come destroy the city." This was the mantra of the corporate media in the weeks leading up to any protest for some time. "Seattle anarchists" were the outside agitators of the day. Nowadays it's "foreign fighters."

I think it was an anarchist book fair I was singing at in Bloomington, Indiana around then. It was the sort of event in a small university town that would a few years before have been considered quaint and very Bloomington-esque. But now it was a cause for alarm, and for fear-mongering about anarchists from Seattle, and maybe an excuse for the police department to apply for federal grants to buy some new equipment.

When the anarchist youth took to the streets on bicycles in a fairly small Critical Mass ride, the police took the occasion to strike, throwing young people off of their bikes, handcuffing them and arresting them. I'm not sure for what. Some kind of obscure traffic violation? Disorderly bicycling?

My concert was happening a half block from where the arrests took place, and as usual, I was setting up to play, and not on a bicycle getting brutalized and arrested. One young man came up to me and gave me a CD. "This is from my friend," he said. "He was trying to come to your show, but he got arrested. This was actually the third time he had been trying to go to one of your shows but got arrested first." It was then that I was sure I was playing in the right sorts of places.

The protests in Miami were a defining moment. By now it was 2003, two years after 9/11. The "war on terror" and the war on "Seattle anarchists" had merged. Miami's police chief, Timoney, had been responsible for the brutality of the Philadelphia police during the RNC there, and now he was police chief of Miami, in time for the FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas) meetings and accompanying protests.

For weeks leading up to the protests, the Miami media was whipping up a frenzy with talk about downtown being destroyed by anti-globalization rioters from all over the Americas. Police Chief Timoney was showing videos to the Miami police that were implying that police were killed during what were increasingly being referred to as the "riots" in Seattle. By the time we arrived, the cops were out for blood.

Downtown Miami was completely shut down, almost no businesses were open, many were boarded up. The few businesses that were open were on our side. The downtown exits on the highway were shut. Nobody was there but us, the cops, and the media, who had mostly imbedded themselves fearfully behind police lines.

Some of the cops and media were quite clearly afraid of us, which was another one of those things that would have been really funny if it weren't terrifying. Thousands of cops in riot gear, driving around in armored personnel carriers, flying around in multiple helicopters circling overhead at any given time, and they're afraid of 20,000 or so entirely unarmed people, most of whom are fairly scrawny white college students…?

The scheduled events included a rally in an amphitheater, a march, and then another rally back at the amphitheater. However, the cops decided not to let more than 200 or so people into the 10,000-seat amphitheater for whatever reason, either before or after the march. I managed to get in, and was, as programmed, singing for the small crowd that was in there when the police began their unscheduled, unprovoked assault on the demonstration outside.

I was doing a tour up the east coast immediately following the FTAA protests, and it was like a gallery of wounds. Every town, every gig was full of people who had been injured by the police in Miami. Here was one friend with a big red splotch from being shot in the breast by a tazer. Here's another with a hard lump the size of a baseball on his thigh from being shot point-blank by a rubber bullet. Then the word that someone from New Jersey died mysteriously days after inhaling too much tear gas. Those "non-lethal" weapons again. By the time I got up to New York City I was singing at a benefit for Indymedia there, who had gotten most of their cameras taken by the police.

I was reminded of one visit to the Lower East Side in the 90's, during the final siege of Tompkins Square Park by the police, to try to seize it along with the rest of the neighborhood, to make it safe for gentrification. There were garbage cans burning, crowds yelling and banging on things, overall it was a very festive occasion. I remember seeing an older guy I knew as Uncle Don there, and he had a broken arm. I asked him what he thought the prospects were. "Too many people are getting their bones broken," he said. "It can't keep going like this."

The blatant tactic is essentially to use overwhelming military force in order to keep a social movement from getting too far off the ground. And while these brutal and bizarre events receive gobs of local media attention, they are virtually ignored by the national press.

Many thousands of people from all walks of life representing hundreds of different organizations were pouring into the streets outside of these various meetings of the corporate elites, and this was generally not national news. If any national media might have considered covering the protests in Miami, they scrapped those stories in favor of breaking news having to do with Michael Jackson's nose, if I recall.

The local Miami TV stations were actual comedy, however. We were being given a bird's eye view of scenes of the protests. We could see beneath us the police attacking demonstrators, but the newscaster was saying things like, "I think there's some kind of scuffle. The police are defending themselves."

Of course, we have the internet (at least as long as Congress maintains net neutrality laws). We've got Pacifica Radio and many other means of reaching people with useful information. But this kind of drumbeat propaganda on the commercial and so-called public airwaves has a profound impact. It is still a huge part of how most people find common reference points, common understandings of broader reality, most of the time.

And what about just setting up a soapbox and speaking on the sidewalk? Well, you're partially blocking a public walkway. Incredibly, I can tell you from personal experience that in most places where people congregate in this country, including on most subway platforms, you cannot sing a song with your guitar case in front of you without being told to leave by the police. The few places where it is legal to do this, such as Boston, it only became legal after court battles over the First Amendment were won by the Street Artists Guild in the 1970's.

I remember listening to BBC World Service a couple years ago. They were doing a piece about street music being banned in Singapore. They obviously thought it was a bit of an extreme measure on the part of the authorities there. They joked that they liked the musicians playing in the London Underground. Little did they know, evidently, that their own government had banned music from the subway platforms a few years before, in 1995, as part of the Criminal Justice Act. I remember it vividly, as it happened just before the summer I was planning to make a living busking in the tube…

It seems to me there's something to be said for knowing your situation. And whatever happens, some things can be known. We've got freedom of speech, sometimes. Every once in a while the media might even pay attention, though most of the time they'll get it entirely wrong. And freedom of assembly? We've got that sometimes, as long as you apply for a permit and actually get one. Just make sure to move when they tell you to, if they give you time to move after they tell you to. Otherwise you may be beaten and tortured with "non-lethal" weapons. But usually they won't fire live ammunition. Viva democracy!