The Constitution and political protests
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Editor, The Konformist
The Constitution and political protests
By Carla Binion
Online Journal Contributing Editor
August 29, 2002 - When on August 22, police in Portland pepper
sprayed protesters and shot them with rubber bullets, they interfered
with the protesters' First Amendment right to peaceably assemble. The
first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights,
protect citizens from being terrorized by their own government.
The First Amendment covers political protests. It reads: "Congress
shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or
prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of
speech or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to
assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."
There is no law against peaceable assembly and petitioning the
government for a redress of grievances, and according to the
Constitution there can be no such law. However, the Portland police
used violent force to repress the protesters' efforts to exercise
their constitutional rights.
In an August 24 story on the Portland protests, The Portland
IndyMedia Center reported that police used pepper spray on children.
The children's father said, "We brought our children to a peaceful
protest, we stayed in the back and we were walking on the sidewalk.
The march stopped at the intersection of 2nd and Alder. We could not
see why from our position on the SW corner of the intersection.
Police quickly moved up behind us and a moment or two later sprayed
pepper spray into the crowd from the NE corner of the intersection.
The crowd ran toward us to escape the spray. We asked the officer
closest to us how we should exit the intersection. He pointed and
said to exit to the NE, into the spraying police opposite him. As the
crowd pressed toward us I yelled to him to let us through (south on
2nd) because we had three small children. He looked at me, and drew
out his can from his hip and sprayed directly at me. I was at an
angle to him and the spray hit my right eye and our 3-year old who I
was holding in my right arm. In the same motion he turned the can on
my wife who was holding our 10-month old baby and doused both of
their heads entirely from a distance of less than three feet."
Who sanctioned this police abuse against peaceful protesters? Why
hasn't the Bush administration denounced it?
Evidently the Bush team condones keeping protesters so far away from
the alleged president that the protesters' efforts to petition for
redress of grievances are virtually nullified. This tells us two
things: (1) Bush and company don't care what the people think and
don't want the people's input, except when the people agree with
them. (2) Bush and company don't care to honor the First Amendment of
The Constitution is merely ink on paper unless Congress and the
American people keep enforcing and defending it over time. It becomes
weak and ineffective when lawmakers and the public stand by and let
power hungry presidents and their handpicked government officials
trample it. There is no Constitution unless Congress and the people
continue to fight for it.
Since September 11, certain politicians and corporate-owned media
commentators have said everything changed after the terrorist
attacks. They've suggested we need to further dilute our
constitutional protections to make us safe from external enemies.
However, if the cure for "terrorism" is throwing out the U.S.
Constitution, the cure is worse than the disease.
In reality, what exactly has changed? As author and educator Michael
Parenti points out in Covert Action Quarterly, Winter, 2001, the
September 11 terrorist attacks gave U.S. opinion makers an issue
that "could be selectively treated with conservative effect, an issue
that rallies everyone around the flag and points a finger at a
fanatical Islamic sect rather than at corporate America or the U.S.
national security state."
Parenti adds that very little has changed since September 11,
saying: "President Bush proposes billions in tax cuts for the rich
just as he did when the World Trade Center stood tall. The White
House pushes an 'economic stimulus' package of $100 billion - really
nothing more than the usual corporate subsidies, bailouts, and
retroactive tax cuts - to help poor little struggling business like
IBM, Ford, GE and GM, while doing nothing for the tens of thousands
of workers who have been laid off . . . And a compliant Congress
pumps billions more into an already bloated military budget.
Unfortunately, here is a nation profoundly unchanged by the recent
"Other things in the newly 'transformed' America seem drearily
familiar. As in previous decades, our fearless leaders continue to
wage devastatingly one-sided aerial wars against small weak
impoverished nations, while loading the media with jingoistic hype.
They continue to deny the terrorist role they themselves have played
around the world. And they continue to neglect human services and
loot the Social Security surplus in order that they might claim that
Social Security is 'going broke' and must eventually be
eliminated . . .
"Still other things remain the same. As they have done during every
crisis, liberal legislators supinely line up with conservatives to
vote the president absolute powers. Media lapdogs talk about how the
same president has 'risen to the challenge' and 'grown in office.'
Flag-waving yahoos call for blood, believing that their government
only opposes terrorism and never practices it. Meanwhile, thousands
of U.S. residents are subjected to ethnic profiling, African-American
communities are terrorized by trigger-happy cops . . . So the
struggle to inject reality and justice into the national dialogue
continues as always. It feels very much like September 10 to me."
As the saying goes, those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.
We should have learned something from history, from an earlier
administration that tried to subvert the Constitution. During the
1980s, the Reagan administration circumvented the Constitution with,
among other things, its involvement in Iran-contra. The
administration justified concealing its behavior from Congress and
the people, claiming this secrecy would protect the public from
danger. In reality, the secrecy only served to protect the
administration from public embarrassment and from coming to justice.
In a PBS special on Iran-contra, journalist Bill Moyers said, "The
people who wrote the Constitution lived in a world more dangerous
than ours. They were surrounded by territory controlled by hostile
powers on the edge of a vast wilderness. Yet they understood that
even in perilous times the strength of self-government was public
debate and public consensus."
Moyers added, "To put aside these basic values out of fear, to
imitate the foe in order to defeat him is to shred the distinction
that makes us different. In the end, not only our values but also our
methods separate us from the enemies of freedom in the world. The
decisions that we make are inherent in the methods that produce them.
An open society cannot survive a secret government."
Secrecy let the Iran-contra participants get away with their
wrongdoing. Former Congressman Lee Hamilton, chairman of the House
Select Committee investigating the Iran-contra affair, was shown
ample evidence against Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, but he
didn't adequately investigate.
Why did Hamilton choose not to push the investigation? In a late
1980s interview aired on PBS's Frontline, Hamilton said that he did
not think it would have been "good for the country" to put the public
through another Watergate-style impeachment trial.
In Lee Hamilton's view, it was better to keep the public in the dark
than to bring to light another Watergate, with all the implied
ramifications. When Hamilton was chairman of the House committee
investigating Iran-contra, he took the word of senior Reagan
administration officials when they claimed Reagan and G. H. W. Bush
were "out of the loop."
Independent counsel Lawrence Walsh later proved that according to
White House records, Reagan and Bush had been very much in the loop.
If Hamilton had pursued the matter instead of accepting the Reagan
administration's word, the congressional investigation would have
revealed the truth.
Hamilton later said he should not have believed the Reagan officials.
This should serve as a reminder today when the George W. Bush
administration asks Congress to merely take its word regarding the
need for war with Iraq and other issues, instead of offering proof.
When the G. W. Bush administration asks Congress and the public for
freedom to weaken our constitutional protections in the name of
protecting us from external enemies; when they ask for secrecy and
refuse to engage in serious public debate and work toward public
consensus on issues such as possible war with Iraq, they are asking
us to let fear cause us to shred the Constitution - and, especially
in the case of Iraq, this is fear based only on the Bush
administration's secret alleged "inside information." We have been
down this road before during the Iran-contra era.
Congress and the public have the right to be heard in the debate on
issues such as environmental protection and potential war with Iraq,
and this is one thing the protesters in Portland were trying to
express. For their efforts, peaceful protesters met with police
The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s made a meaningful
difference, and so did the movement against the Vietnam War. The
protesters then were also attacked by police and, in the beginning,
they were opposed by authority figures, but they persisted and
eventually changed the direction of this country and of the world.
However, the civil rights movement, for example, involved more than
protests. It also included thousands of gatherings in black churches
over a long period of years, the motivation of thousands of stirring
speeches - inspiring because they were rooted in truth - and group
dialogue and planning. It involved massive truth-spreading campaigns,
including the handing out of informational leaflets and other
mobilizing efforts in the black community and beyond, day after day.
If we the people are to keep the momentum going in terms of salvaging
the Constitution and keeping democracy alive, we have to organize and
get the word out between protests. Keeping our Constitution, our
protection under the Bill of Rights and our democracy is an ongoing
The Bush administration has in many ways used the "war on terrorism"
as an excuse for a war of terrorism against the people of this
country, a questionable war on Iraq and a war against the U.S.
Constitution. If that's not enough to get us away from our TV screens
and cause us to gather in churches, homes, businesses and meeting
halls across the country, what more would it take? Let the protests
continue, and let the gathering and organizing between protests begin.
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