Saturday, August 23, 2008

The 2008 Political Conventions and the Suppression of Dissent

As the spectacle of the 2008 Olympic Games comes to a close, it is apparent that China was largely successful in their attempt to crackdown on any type of public protests that would interrupt or tarnish China's image. 10 days into the Olympic Games, the Chinese Government had yet to permit any protests in three designated protest zones that were sanctioned for the Games. 77 applications were received since August 1 and zero have been granted. Not only has China been rejecting applications to protest, but the government has also been detaining people on a preventive basis. This piece in the New York Times details the story of Gao Chuancai. He was one of the people who applied for a permit to protest in the pre-approved protest zones that were sanctioned by the Chinese government. Two weeks later, when he went to Beijing to follow-up, he was questioned for over an hour and told to return in five days. Hours later, Chuancai was picked up by police and placed into custody. Chuancai's son had not heard from him at the time of the story.

This type of behavior, the quashing of dissent, has been commonplace in China in the build-up to and during the Olympic Games. "Providing a secure environment" is often a reason that is cited in discussions of the boom of the Chinese security industry. As I have discussed and Naomi Klein has investigated, this build-up of the Chinese security industry will continue long after the last gold medal is placed around the neck of an athlete. It is part of a system that is meant to limit dissent and place the Chinese population under a constant watch reminiscent of Big Brother in the novel 1984. The Olympics functioned as a two-pronged test for China: to see if the world was ready to accept China as a global player despite their record on human rights, and to see if the newfound "surveillance society" was effective and ready for export. The answer to both questions is largely, yes. One only needs to look at the preparation for the Democratic and Republican National Conventions in order to see how dissent is both marginalized and suppressed.

The lavish preparations for the Democratic and Republican National Conventions have been underway for months. Corporate sponsorships have been lined up and finishing touches are being placed for when the world's attention will shift from Beijing, to Denver, Colorado and St. Paul, Minnesota. In addition to the scheduled speakers and high-profile guests that will be present at each convention, there are another group of people who wish to use this opportunity to make their voices heard. Various organized groups and concerned individuals are making plans to attend both conventions to protest everything from corporate involvement in the political process to the dissatisfaction with each political party's platform and views on some of the most important issues of our time. Groups such as ReCreate 68 have a whole schedule of events that they are planning for the DNC beginning on August 25 and CODEPink plans to attend both conventions to protest and dissent. Dissent is part of the backbone of a healthy democracy and Constitutional protection gives those who wish to express opposition, protection from the ruling powers who may wish to retaliate. These two political conventions allow the rest of us to see how both major political parties will handle those who wish to dissent; will their rights be embraced as part of a healthy and functioning democracy or will they be marginalized and suppressed under the banner of providing security and order?

For starters, Denver police started stocking up on pepper-spray guns thanks to a $50 million federal grant that was issued:

"But the city has refused to disclose exactly how it is spending all the federal security money, which last month prompted the American Civil Liberties Union to file a civil lawsuit alleging the city is violating the Colorado Open Records Act. Releasing the information is “contrary to the public interest” because it could disclose important tactical information, potentially jeopardizing security, city officials said."

The ironically titled "Free Speech Zones" or "Protest Zones" have been set up in both cities to give protesters a designated area in which they can express their views. For the DNC in Denver, groups such as the ACLU have argued that the designated "zone" is so far away (at least 200 yards) from the Pepsi Center, that the protesters will not be heard. Some of the rules that have been slated for protesting in Denver have included the following:

* The protest zone will be 53,414 square feet in the south corner of Lot A, a parking lot near the Pepsi Center's main entrance.
* The zone will be surrounded by a fence that people can see and hear through.
* Parades will start near 14th Avenue and Bannock Street, head west on Colfax Avenue, then north on Speer Boulevard to Larimer. Pedestrians may then walk through the Auraria campus to the protest zone at Seventh Avenue and Auraria Parkway.
* Parades will be allowed only between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., and no alternate routes are allowed.
* Details such as how many people will be allowed inside the protest zone, whether protesters will be able to use sound amplifiers and if everyone entering will be subject to search have not been decided or have not been made public.

In addition to the construction of these so-called protest zones, there will be a large presence of military and police officials who will be in-part coordinated by a "fusion center". These centers are becoming more present since 9/11 and in Denver, will be used by federal and local law enforcement to gather intelligence and information on "suspicious activity". A piece was recently done in The Colorado Independent which discussed the fusion center in Denver and its activities in the build-up to the Democratic National Convention. From the article:

"Central to the efforts is Colorado’s “fusion” center, a place designed to facilitate intelligence sharing among federal, state and military agencies in an effort to prevent terrorism. But civil rights advocates fear that the Colorado Information Analysis Center, (CIAC) now housed in an inconspicuous office building in Centennial, a southern suburb of Denver, could enable unwarranted spying on Americans exercising their First Amendment rights at the convention."

Not only is new information being gathered for the approaching conventions, but old information is also being analyzed. I-Witness Video has reveled that the CIA is receiving information about protests that were held during the 2004 Republican Convention in New York City. I-Witness Video has also released documents which contain the notes and intelligence that were gathered on protest groups and potential protesters in the lead-up to the 2004 Convention. All 603 pages of those documents can be viewed here.

In addition to the construction of "protest zones" and the expansion of intelligence gathering, the CBS affiliate in Denver recently reported on how police will detain people arrested at the DNC. Local police have constructed a makeshift holding facility inside a warehouse that is owned by the City of Denver. Each "cell" is 5 yards by 5 yards with barbed wire lining the top of the cages. There is a lock on the door and a sign that reads "Warning! Electric stun devices used in this facility." A video report from CBS4 on the issue is below:

As all of this information is brought to light it is increasingly important that dissent is protected as a sign of a healthy democracy. There has been some media attention that has focused on the crackdown on dissent in China, but there needs to be greater examination of the crackdown of dissent domestically. "Free Speech Zones" should not be limited to a section of a parking lot that is surrounded by a chain link fence, rather the term "Free Speech Zone" should apply to the entire country. The rights of those who dissent should not limited in the name of security, but their rights should remain strong to act as a check against tyranny. As the pomp and circumstance of the Democratic and Republican Conventions get underway, we must take a look at how the rights of the protesters are (dis)respected and ask what it tells us about the country in which we live and the direction in which we are headed.

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