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An Interview with Heidi Boghosian

Conducted by Benjamin Dangl

7/27/04

Upside Down World

Within the last few years the strategies police use to control activist events have changed dramatically. Massive pens divided and contained protesters at the February 15, 2003 anti-war rally in New York City. Hundreds of preemptive arrests took place at The Free Trade Area of the Americas protest in Miami in 2003, and at this year’s G8 Summit on Sea Island, Georgia, roughly 500 protesters were met by a police and military force of nearly 25,000. Organizers of activist events and marches at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions are already running into road blocks as local officials refuse to cooperate in the issuance of permits. These are just some of the tactics being used to crack down on the right to dissent and prevent protests before they start.

Heidi Boghosian is the Executive Director of the National Lawyers Guild (www.nlg.org), and is the co-host of the civil liberties radio show "Law and Disorder" on WBAI in New York. In this interview, Boghosian discusses how police control of protests has changed since September 11th, what the “Miami Model” entails, how the threat of terrorism is being used as an excuse to clamp down on civil liberties, and what activists can do to prevent and fight against such pressure.

BD: From what I’ve heard of the FTAA protests in Miami, and what I saw at the G8 protests in Georgia, there seems to be a new police strategy to chill dissent. Could you briefly describe this new strategy, which some have called the “Miami Model”? How does it differ from pre-September 11th protest control?

HB: Post-September 11 police strategies have institutionalized several practices that were already beginning to take shape a few years before and that imperil civil liberties for everyone in this country. The Seattle City Council's World Trade Organization Accountability Review Committee found that police and city leaders abdicated their responsibility in planning for the WTO protests, a failure that put people at risk and contributed to a violation of protesters' constitutional rights. The general strategy includes using unnecessary, excessive force on peaceful protesters (often without any order to disperse or with an inaudible one, so that police can say that people failed to obey their orders); pre-textual administrative searches of organizers' planning headquarters, false or unlawful arrests of large numbers of peaceful protesters which results in keeping them off the streets for significant parts of demonstrations, denial of permits or unnecessarily burdensome requirements to get permits (such as taking out liability insurance, which few can afford); sending messages to the public, echoed in the media, that protesters are lawless and violent; erecting containment pens to trap protesters into a confined space; using motorcycles and bicycles to herd protesters, and passing event-specific ordinances, as in Miami, which are usually found unconstitutional.

BD: How is the threat of terrorism being used by the police as an excuse to crack down on dissent?

HB: In times of war the government is often intolerant of the First Amendment protections of speech. We now see a multi-level erosion of protections that we've taken for granted, from the relaxing of guidelines on domestic spying, to the questioning and infiltration of meetings on college campuses, to the announcement of former press secretary Ari Fleischer to "watch what we say." The government sets the standard that any kind of speech that challenges the administration's policies in any way is subject to heightened scrutiny. That standard and memoranda issued by the FBI to local law enforcement, signals to police that any kind of speech that questions the government is potentially dangerous. The passage of the USA PATRIOT Act includes a very broad definition of "domestic terrorism," which can arguably apply to all acts of protest.

BD: What effect does this have on the locals where the protests are taking place? Are they being harassed and intimidated as well?

HB: From what we saw at the G-8 Summit in Georgia, most of the local residents resented the enormous military presence and the intrusion of the military into their daily lives. They got to know many of the protesters and were sympathetic to their wish to be able to exercise their First Amendment right to engage in demonstrations and rallies. The larger and more visible the presence of local and federal law enforcement, often outnumbering protesters, often draws attention to the fact that law enforcement is overreacting.

BD: Are preemptive arrests and the late issuance of permits new tactics?

HB: Late issuance of permits, as well as other requirements to get permits, such as taking out liability insurance or even bond to pay for police or related services, is definitely part of the new police tactics. Late issuance makes protest planning nearly impossible and has the effect of interrupting or stalling effective planning by people traveling from out of town. Preemptive arrests are a large part of the new police tactics. Most often, the arrests are not based on probable cause and charges are ultimately dropped. Review commissions around the country are starting to report on this tactic, so it seems to be generally recognized as an attempt to disrupt the flow of free speech.

BD: What police tactics do you expect at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions?

HD: We expect to see the same set of preemptive tactics that we've witnessed in other major cities across the nation, and will take note of any new tactics as well. We've already seen the delaying and denying of permits and expect to see mass false arrests, raids of organizing places, use of excessive force on peaceful protesters, and use of the "rush" tactic that we saw in New York on February 15, 2003 where police rode horses into crowds.

BD: How much are these police tactics affecting activist turnout at protests? Do you expect low turnouts at the DNC and the RNC?

HB: We expect large turnouts in both Boston and New York. Despite the possibility of continued police suppression tactics, people want to exercise their right to express their political views. The Republican and Democratic Conventions are symbolic events at which to do so.

BD: What is your advice to activists and organizers to help deal with and fight against these crack downs?

HB: First, know your basic rights and also become familiar with the laws pertaining to protest in both cities -- a local Lawyers Guild chapter or member can assist with this and there are many law collectives around the country that conduct Know Your Rights trainings. During the demonstration(s), write telephone numbers on your person in case of an emergency (the National Lawyers Guild number in New York City will be available in early to mid August) and make sure that if you are arrested you have made an arrangement with a friend to write down the location of the arrest, any identifying information about the arresting officer, names and numbers of witnesses and any other details that might prove helpful later on. Keeping detailed information about any unlawful and unconstitutional police conduct is important, especially if you are seriously injured.

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"If the world is upside down the way it is now, wouldn't we have to turn it over to get it to stand up straight?" ---Eduardo Galeano