Conventional Dissent

Free Speech in the Streets

Making ContactIn May, Making Contact broadcast a half hour radio documentary on civil liberties during upcoming political party conventions, produced and reported by Abby Scher, editor of The Public Eye as part of the quarterly’s continuing collaboration with the show. Building off the article she cowrote with Heidi Boghosian in the fall 2007 issue of The Public Eye, Abby talks with New Yorkers who exposed the police abuses during the Republican National Convention in 2004, and lawyers in the cities where the Democratic and Republican conventions will be held this summer, as they fight to prevent similar tactics.

During the 2004 Republican National Convention, as Christopher Dunn of the New York Civil Liberties Union recounts on the broadcast, New York police rounded up demonstrators with no cause, held them overnight rather than release them with the usual appearance ticket, traveled the world to spy on nonviolent political activists, deployed agent provocateurs who stimulated fake arrests that aroused the ire of the crowd, and were caught presenting faked evidence against demonstrators in court. By staging confrontations using provocateurs, the police made demonstrators seem like “troublemakers,” changing the message the activists were trying to communicate.

The documentary then takes listeners to Denver, where the Democratic convention will be held, and St. Paul, where the Republican convention is scheduled, where local lawyers face new delays in issuing permits for demonstrations during the conventions— giving organizers little time to plan—and the arrest, fingerprinting and detention overnight of nonviolent demonstrators. In St. Paul, lawyer Bruce Nestor said there was “nothing less than a police riot” in August when police attacked nonviolent demonstrators with mace in what Nestor feared was a dry run for the convention. In Denver, police tracked down a college student who, after spotting an undercover officer at an anti-Columbus Day protest, offered to take his picture, said lawyer Thomas Cincotta: “They contacted this person’s college and, in a formal complaint asked that the student be disciplined for violating the college’s disciplinary code.… a sign that they want to protect this undercover surveillance and undercover activity.”

Such actions of local police can be just as damaging to fundamental Constitutional rights to free speech and assembly as the secret workings of the White House.


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