Drowning Out Dissent

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November 23rd 2003
Published: November 23rd 2003
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On the morning of Sunday, November 24, I arrived at the gates of Fort Benning for the annual School of the Americas protest to find that it was true, post-9/11, “everything had changed.” Several hundred people were standing in line, stamping their feet in the frosty air, waiting to be searched at a police checkpoint that would do the the occupiers of Baghdad and the Gaza Strip proud. Although there had not been a single act of violence in the fourteen years of SOA Watch gatherings at Fort Benning, the Columbus Police Department and Muscogee Sheriff’s Department still felt the need to “protect demonstrators from demonstrators.” While demonstrators were not allowed to carry in rope, bungee cords or PVC piping, the police were conspicuously armed with clubs, guns and pepper spray. If the holstered gas masks and horse trailers were any indication, then tear gas launchers and mounted police were just out of sight. Empty buses stood ready to carry away hundreds of citizens handcuffed with the plastic zipties carried by just about every police officer. If there were two sides at the rally, then one side was armed, ready and itching for a fight, while the other wished to show that, as a ubiquitous sign declared, “there is no way to peace, peace is the way.”

The road leading up to the main gate of Fort Benning is not one of the lonely stretches of rural highway abutting our country’s many military reservations. Instead the site of the annual rally against the School of the Americas is squarely in the middle of a lower-income residential neighborhood. Local families make a few extra dollars for Christmas by selling cold drinks and sandwiches from their front porches. That the police were prepared to don gas masks and flood a residential neighborhood with tear gas spoke volumes not only about the fear created in the heart of the establishment by citizens daring to dust off and actually exercise their civil rights, but also spoke to the lack of neighborhood political clout. If Fort Benning Road had happened to pass through an affluent (white) neighborhood instead of a poor (black) neighborhood, then it is safe to say that there would have been a massive outcry from well-connected (white) citizens at police plans to gas their neighborhood.

Prior to 9/11 the police in Columbus, Georgia did not set up checkpoints and conduct massive, baseless searches. Presumably if there were any searches, they were conducted on the basis of probable cause. Now it seems that the only probable cause necessary is a desire to attend a constitutionally-protected gathering. In fact the Columbus city government tried, and failed, to ban the annual rally in 2001, months after 9/11, on the basis that it was a threat to national security. While thousands attended the rally to close the SOA on 11/24/03, and were searched by the police, I have yet to learn that the police searched Brig. Gen. Benjamin Freakley, commanding officer of Fort Benning, Col. Richard Downie, commander of the renamed School of the Americas, Columbus Mayor Bob Poydasheff, or any of the three hundred leather-clad bikers who attended the simultaneous “We Support Fort Benning” rally. I would think it far more probable that combat veterans and Harley riders, some of whom publicly admit to committing murder at the behest of their country, would be far more dangerous than a posse of pacifists.

But after 9/11, “everything had changed,” including, it would seem, the funding received by the Columbus Police Department and the Muscogee Sheriff’s Department. But to counter one worn-out proverb with another, the more things change, the more things stay the same. When national security is threatened, everyone wallows up to the trough of pork barrel legislation. Spiffy new gas masks holsters were seen on nearly half the hips of the hundreds of officers present, and those without gas masks were carrying spiffy new bags of plastic ziptie handcuffs. With the threat of violence so imminent at SOA Watch rallies, the sheriff and police chief apparently were able to get a homeland security handout. While Islamic fundamentalists of Arab descent have been noticeably absent from the pluralistic, ecumenical SOA Watch gatherings in recent years, the authorities have felt the need to search every Catholic nun and elementary school student on the apparent basis that they might be terrorists in disguise. While there have been no violent disruptions at any SOA Watch rally, now that “everything has changed,” the police feel the need to employ not one, but two mobile observation posts. Snuggled within a tinted, bulletproof glass cabin atop a thirty foot tall hydraulic arm, the police can now surveil and raconteur in air-conditioned comfort. While SOA Watch has rented an apartment building a hundred feet away from Fort Benning for years now to plan and coordinate the rally, the Columbus Police Department now rents their own apartment block, cordoned off with yellow crime scene tape, and the upstairs windows blackened, the better not to announce the rumored presence of civil-minded police snipers serving and protecting the public through the barrel of a gun.

If there were two sides to the rally, then one side saw the use of violence, as the problem, not the solution, while the other side saw the use of violence as the solution to the problem of suggesting any alternative to violence. None of the “demonstrators” were calling for a violent end to the use of violence, but the police appeared ready to bring a violent end to calls for peace. But of course, it was for the demonstrators’ own good.

The Columbus Ledger-Enquirer published an editorial following the weekend rally declared that “a lot of the credit for another mostly incident-free event, as always, should go to local city and post officials and private citizens -- for the precautions they took and, maybe just as important or more so, for their skills in rhetorical and emotional climate control as well as crowd control.” http://www.ledger-enquirer.com/mld/ledgerenquirer/7343048.htm But praising the police for a violence-free event is akin to praising the prison warden for a lack of riots. While neither the demonstrators nor the prisoners have rioted, but neither the police nor the warden is responsible for the actions of persons other than themselves. While the police certainly acted to prevent the potential for violence by searching everybody attending the rally, if anybody had wanted to commit an act of violence, it would have been their choice. Furthermore, if the police were responsible for a lack of violence on the part of the demonstrators, would they have also been responsible for demonstrator violence? It was the demonstrators, and not the police, who were blamed and held responsible for their own actions in Miami in November and in Seattle several years ago. It would seem then that an American culture that views violence as an acceptable tool of governance would hold the police responsible for a lack of demonstrator violence, but would hold the demonstrators responsible for demonstrator violence. Either way, the police come out looking better than the demonstrators.

On the first day of the rally, Saturday, November 23, the Army had set up a set of competing P.A. speakers pointed straight towards the P.A. system set up by SOA Watch next to the stage. The Army chose to play songs such as “God Bless America,” “God Bless the USA,” “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy (of Company B),” “The Army Song,” and numerous other patriotic hymns at volumes that often drowned out the message of SOA Watch founder Roy Bourgeois and singer Pete Seeger. While an Army spokesman ostensibly claimed that the music was provided for the entertainment of the troops, it was difficult to understand why the speakers were pointed toward the protest and away from the troops. According to the Army the music came from a CD made by a soldier’s wife. Unless the proper royalties were paid, the manufacture of such a CD and the public performance of it constitute violations of copyright laws. SOA Watch is considering suing the Army for abuse of power and denial of civil rights under the Bivens Act. The effect of the competing music was to drown out dissent. The commanding officer of Fort Benning taunted demonstrators and revealed a desire to quash dissent by saying, "we had a lot more decibel power that we didn't choose to use."

An Associated Press report dated 11/23/03 revealed the FBI’s efforts to monitor groups involved in the recent peace demonstrations in Washington DC and Miami. http://dean.salon.com/news/wire/2003/11/23/fbi/ According to an FBI source, anti-terrorism funds were used investigate and monitor anti-war groups, ostensibly to counter any potential violence. Just as FBI investigations into anti-war groups today recalls the Vietnam-era COINTELPRO investigations of anti-war groups, so also does the official insinuation that anti-war activists are linked to terrorists recall the insinuations of an earlier day that civil rights leaders and peace activists were communists in disguise. The FBI has officially denied that they are targeting anti-war groups for strictly political purposes, but an insinuation is made nonetheless that is consistent with our President’s simplistic division of the world: “You’re either with us or against us.”

You’re either with the president in advocating the use of terror to exterminate terrorists, or you’re against him. And if you’re against the president. then you must be a terrorist. And if you deny being a terrorist, then you must really be a terrorist, because only terrorists deny that they’re terrorists. As Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, asked, “What is the chilling effect that will be felt by Americans all across the country if they think they will come under FBI scrutiny just by going to a protest?”

It is the challenge of those who would be a voice for peace to speak against such orwellian logic to affirm that they are continuing an American tradition of dialogue and dissent, a tradition that pays more than just lip service to the sacrifices of our fellow countrymen and -women who have given their lives to protect our Constitution. If our fellow Americans died to protect our civil liberties, then we honor their sacrifice by exercising our civil liberties, even when it means questioning our leaders’ blind allegiance to violence as a tool of both domestic and global governance.


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