Stifling Dissent

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2003 edition of Liberties, the newsletter of the ACLU/EM


Stifling Dissent ñ Hostility Towards Anti-War Protesters


By Denise Lieberman

ACLU/EM Legal Director


As I processed our fourth case involving arrests of anti-war protesters in the St. Louis area, I couldnít help but be struck by bitter nostalgia of the of the 1960s, when anti-war protesters were frequently the subject of surveillance and arrest because of their political views. Times of war or national crisis have always posed the greatest threats to civil liberties, and our current times are no exception. Of late, weíve seen disturbing hostility of dissenting views, particularly toward anti-war protesters. 


"Since the war started, these police have gone crazy." said Kenny Mains, spouse of Christine Mains, who was arrested April 16 with her five-year old daughter while protesting the Presidentís war policy during Bushís visit to the Boeing plant in St. Louis. Mains was arrested after she refused to be herded to a ìdesignated protest zoneî more than a quarter mile from the site of President Bushís address at Boeing. With a prohibitively high bond, Mains was stuck in the Berkeley Jail until ACLU/EM General Counsel Steve Ryals secured her release later that day. She now awaits criminal charges.


Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. With Ryalsí help, the ACLU/EM is defending criminal charges against Andrew Wimmer, who was arrested in South St. Louis on January 22 after he refused to be contained in a designated protest zone during a visit by President Bush to discuss his economic plan. Wimmer and other protesters attended the rally with signs reading: ìInstead of War, Invest in People.î  Wimmer, a mild-mannered information technology specialist, hoped to make his views known to the President and other rally attendees. Instead he and other protesters were told by St. Louis police to go to the ìdesignated protest zoneî more than three blocks away and down an embankment where they could not be seen by attendees or the motorcade. Wimmer, who stood along public sidewalks with other demonstrators and event attendees not blocking traffic, cooperated by moving further away at police orders, until he decided it had gone too far. He stopped and refused to move further. As Wimmer was arrested with his sign, another demonstrator holding a sign praising President Bush was not arrested and not asked to move.


The ACLU/EM is also representing Bill Ramsey and Angela Gordon, who were arrested in November for refusing to go to a designated protest zone more than a quarter of a mile away from where President Bush was scheduled to speak at the St. Charles Family Arena. Ramsey and Gordon were part of a small group of peaceful protesters, carrying signs reading ìPeace Not Warî and ìNo war in Iraq.î They also cooperated by moving further away from the event until it became clear that they were being sent far out of sight. ìWe were non-violent protesters,î wrote client Angela Gordon in a letter to the ACLU. ìWe were not trying to block traffic. We were not trying to interfere with police business. We were not trying to inhibit entrance or exit from the Arena or the Arena property,î she said.


ìI chose to be arrested rather than step back because I believe that freedom of speech protects my right to speak (in words or signs) in public, in full view of those people who oppose my views or who disagree with me,î Gordon said. ìThe official protest area would have denied me that right. It was so far from any activity that nobody would ever have known we were there. Nobody would have ëheardí our message.î


At least one judge agrees. In Pittsburgh, a judge dismissed charges against Bill Neel, who refused to go to a designated protest zone during an appearance by President Bush. Calling the protest zone a ìdissident corral,î the judge threw out charges against Neel, who was represented by the ACLU, saying he was guilty of nothing more than peaceably exercising his First Amendment right to free speech.


In St. Louis, the ACLU/EM is also investigating charges of police misconduct against anti-war protesters following a peace rally in Forest Park on March 30. The rally was preceded by a number of ìfeederî marches and occurred without incident. But when it was over, those involved with a youth contingent decided to march en masse away from the rally to show their continued support for the effort. The group of about 60 marchers with anti-war signs was met by numerous police who blocked the road and stopped the march from proceeding. Reports indicate that police initially directed people to the sidewalks, but then beat, maced and arrested some of the marchers. At least one was beaten so severely he sustained a concussion and had to go to the hospital. Marchers reported that police repeatedly called the protesters ìanti-Americanî and ìunpatrioticî for opposing the war.  Our St. Louis office has received 21 complaints from march participants.


Outside of St. Louis, ACLU lawyers in New York are challenging a secret police program of interrogating anti-war protesters about their political affiliations and prior protest activities. Under that program, which had been in effect since the large anti war rallies on February 15, police forced hundreds of peaceful protesters charged with minor offenses to surrender information about their political affiliations. In April, the NYPD finally agreed to stop the program. The program, said Christopher Dunn, Associate Legal Director of the NYCLU, raised ìtroubling questions about the police departmentís respect for lawful, political activity.î


In California, ACLU lawyers have aired concerns about police tactics used in dealing with anti-war protesters, including police sweeps of peaceful protesters and bystanders, improper dispersal orders, arrests of non-disruptive legal observers, and excessive force. In Chicago, anti-war protesters announced in April that they are suing after police thwarted peaceful protest marches. In March, the City of Asheville, N.C. passed a law barring all war-related protesters from the public park. 


Over the years, the ACLU has lead the resistance to curtailments of free expression during times of crisis. Indeed, the ACLU was born more than 80 years ago out of the struggle against government attacks against anti-war protesters during World War I. The now infamous Palmer Raids trampled civil liberties ñ arrests without warrants, unreasonable searches, police brutality, unlawful detentions and deportations without trials. In response, the Civil Liberties Bureau of the American Union Against Militarism rose as the primary opposition to these measures, becoming in 1920 its own organization: the American Civil Liberties Union.


History is replete with examples of government stifling dissent. During the McCarthy era, the government kept secret files on thousands of ìdissidentsî and blacklisted people because of their political views. Programs included COINTELPRO, which spied on peaceful protect groups; STOP INDEX, that tracked and monitored anti-war activists; CONUS, which collected more than 100,000 files on political activists during the cold war. During the 1960s, as part of Operation CHAOS, the government spied, secretly wiretapped and monitored activists in the anti-war and civil rights movements. Those abuses lead to widespread disdain for FBI tactics, resulting in stricter guidelines by the 1970s. Since then, the FBI limited its spying to situations where criminal conduct was suspected ñ until 2002, when John Ashcroft re-wrote the guidelines. Many of the new provisions established after September 11 have loosened restrictions on monitoring political organizations.  ACLU has led the resistance to such measures, as it is leading the resistance to infringements on the rights of anti-war protesters. 


If history teaches us anything, it is that stifling dissent will not make us safer, and will not make us more free. The ACLU will continue to fight restrictions on free speech and work to keep the abuses of the past in the history books, not the pages of tomorrowís paper.
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