Magazine article Insight on the News

Symposium

Magazine article Insight on the News

Symposium

Article excerpt

Q: Are police using inapropriate force on political demonstrators?

Yes: Local police are deploying an arsenal of chemical and other weapons to silence political dissent.

In 1923, Upton Sinclair was arrested by the Los Angeles Police Department for publicly recking the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Ignoring a warning to "cut out that Constitution stuff" Sinclair was charged with agitating to overthrow the government. Following his release from custody, Sinclair told the Los Angeles police chief: "I freely admit that when I see a line of a hundred policemen with drawn revolvers flung across a street to keep anyone from coming to hear my feeble voice, I am somewhat disturbed in my nerves. But I have a conscience and a religious faith, and I know that our liberties were not won without suffering and may be lost again through our cowardice. I intend to do my duty to my country."

Eight decades later, the Los Angeles police still don't think much of that "Constitution stuff." Thousands of political protesters who assembled to exercise their First Amendment right to voice dissent outside the Democratic National Convention were confronted with lines of police clad in full riot gear. Throughout the convention, the police engaged in rampant lawlessness in an effort to suppress free speech. The constitutional rights of political protesters were trashed in the process.

Prior to the Democratic National Convention, Mayor Richard Riordan and Chief of Police Bernard Parks fomented fear through dissemination of misinformation and scare tactics. They warned that the "anarchists" were coming to town, without explaining that most anarchists are committed to nonviolence. They rewrote the history of the World Trade Organization (WTO) protests in Seattle, ignoring the nonviolent actions of the vast majority of demonstrators and the repeated use of excessive force by the police. They obtained approval from the Board of Police Commissioners to use a variety of weapons -- after first pleading their case before the commissioners during a closed session from which the press and public were barred.

The clear objective of these efforts, and similar efforts during the WTO meeting in Seattle, the International Monetary Fund meeting in Washington and the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, was to straitjacket political dissent.

Philadelphia and Los Angeles followed similar game plans to curtail lawful protest during the national party conventions. Both cities sought to contain free speech to a small, officially designated area. In Philadelphia, city officials designated one area for free-speech activities, available in 50-minute time increments. All other areas in the city were declared off-limits to free-speech activities. In Los Angeles, city officials created a "secure zone" around the convention site, pronouncing public streets and sidewalks within the zone off-limits to the public. The city also designated an official protest area 260 yards from the convention hall.

Legal action was required in both cities to ensure that political dissent could be both seen and heard during the gatherings of our national political parties. In striking down the Los Angeles "secure zone" Judge Gary Feese ruled that "at this crucial political event, those who do not possess a ticket to the convention cannot get close enough to the facility to be seen or heard. The First Amendment does not permit such a result." Judge Feese also struck down the city's parade- and park-permit regulations as unconstitutional, ensuring that political protesters could gather in public parks and march on city streets.

Unable to confine speech to officially designated locations, both Philadelphia and Los Angeles resorted to heavy-handed law enforcement to silence dissent. Most troubling about the Philadelphia response was the preemptive raid on a warehouse where puppets, signs and banners were being made. …

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