Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Mass Arrests and Free Speech

Occupy Wall Street
Protesters on Bridge
The main feature that distinguishes a democracy from a totalitarian regime is freedom of speech. The first amendment guarantees our right to demonstrate and protest against what we perceive as wrongs against us. This includes the crazy dude with the sign warning about the fast-approaching world's end as well as the 700 Occupy Wall Street protesters who were systematically handcuffed with those plastic, twist-tie restraints and detained for hours.

Of course this action, along with the macing of peaceful, women demonstrators was blatantly illegal and designed for one purpose only: to frighten people and quell dissent. If the cops can make ordinary folks afraid to even stand on the sidewalk watching or holding a sign, they have succeeded in suppressing or at the very least, putting a damper on free speech.

Those affected by these actions have expressed no desire to cease and desist, but those who watch them on TV from home may feel otherwise. They may feel like the risk is not worth the reward. And when the media all but boycotts the protest it is hard to justify that something is being accomplished. But it is. A movement is being born and although birth can be a painful process, it is usually worth it.

In April of 1992 the Rodney King verdict came down and there were riots in the streets of  Los Angeles. In San Francisco some windows were broken and a police motorcycle was burned but, other than that, the protests were basically peaceful. The week after the primary demonstration there was a protest in the Mission District. Before any illegal action could even cross the minds of demonstrators, all of them were rounded up, manacled with twist-tie handcuffs, and hauled off in buses to Santa Rita jail. They were set free on their own recognizance the following day. My partner was among them.

The following weekend I was so angry at this flagrant violation of the law (as well as the King verdict) that I showed up with her in Dolores Park for another rally. It was a long day in early May. After the rally the group began marching down Market Street towards downtown SF. Just past the Castro District, in front of Safeway, the cops moved in and surrounded us. They didn't say a word and they didn't have that fancy orange mesh for in those days either. They just locked arms in a big circle and began cuffing our hands behind our backs and loading us into buses. There were over 350 of us so it took a while.

We were then bused to an empty warehouse that had been set up with makeshift pens constructed with police barricades. There was a port-a-potty and a water dispensers with paper cups and a very dirty concrete floor. They took identification information and fingerprinted us and kept us there for around eight hours. At approximately 3:30 am they began releasing us in small groups.

Needless to say, this police action was totally illegal. Both my partner and I joined a class action suit that netted us around one-hundred dollars per hour for our time served. Supposedly, as part of our settlement, they destroyed the records as well. It still stands as the best money I've ever earned, but that's beside the point. Free speech and dissent are the basic elements of a democracy. They are not bargaining chips to be traded away in the name of "law and order."