Shutting down dissent is costly. After a court ruling this week on police handling of Occupy Wall Street protesters, we learned how much such tactics by law enforcement cost the American taxpayer. Of course, the American taxpayer has had to foot the bill, not once, but twice.
This week, lawyers for the organization Lawyers for the Rest Of Us. issued a statement announcing the largest settlement to date regarding the Occupy Wall Street protesters and the City of New York. In addition to the public relations nightmare, the city has agreed to pay a staggering out $583,024 to 14 who were falsely arrested.
On January 1st, 2012, in a federal lawsuit, Peat v. City of New York, 12-cv-8230, filed in the Southern District of New York on November 13, 2012. The lawsuit alleged that the plaintiffs’ Constitutional rights to free speech and assembly were violated by their arrests.
This settlement is notable as it is the largest single settlement to date for an Occupy Wall Street-related civil rights lawsuit in New York. The details of the case are worth reviewing since it may not be the last of its kind.
The fourteen plaintiffs were arrested at 2nd Avenue and 13th Street in Manhattan during a peaceful march of Occupy Wall Street supporters. At that location, police officers accompanying the march stopped the march from continuing forward and enclosed the marchers within police lines composed of scooter patrol officers and officers on foot. High-ranking NYPD officers, including then-Chief of Patrol James Hall, Deputy Chief Theresa Shortell, Deputy Inspector Daniel O’Donnell, and Captain William Taylor were present at the scene and directly participated in making the arrests.
The plaintiffs were charged with blocking pedestrian traffic under Penal Law 240.20 (disorderly conduct). The District Attorney’s office later declined to prosecute the criminal cases against the plaintiffs.
The point was to get them off the street and, others might say, to intimidate them into silence.
According to the testimony, the police had essentially demanded the marchers disperse and them allowed them no access to do so. The protesters were then roughly handled by officers using nightsticks, pepper spray and plastic tie handcuffs.
In the court action, the plaintiffs alleged that officers physically restrained the protesters as they were leaving. Around 20 others were arrested, including "citizen journalists" and "legal observers."
One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit gave his own account of the arrest.
“Captain Taylor personally prevented me from obeying his order, by stepping in my way and putting his hand on my chest when I tried to leave. A few seconds later, I was on the ground with my face on the pavement and several police officers on top of me.”
Lawyers for the plaintiff, Wylie Stecklow of Stecklow Cohen & Thompson, had this to say:
“This systematic false arrest and misconduct by high ranking NYPD officers is a symptom of an institutional practice of chilling expressive speech activity and suppressing protest in New York City...The police, led by supervising officers, stopped peaceful protesters on the sidewalk, surrounded them with a blue wall of police, told them to disperse, and then arrested them before they possibly could. This was an unacceptable violation of basic constitutional rights perpetrated by the Bloomberg-Kelly NYPD."
Whether this decision will spark further legal battles is another story.
Austerity and Security
If that wasn't enough of a disgrace, the costs to the taxpayer of denying constitutional rights to its citizens does not stop there.
Back in 2012, when the Occupy Wall Street movement was in full swing, some people were already questioning the wisdom of Department of Homeland Security spending so much to silence legal protests. As a writer for Mother Jones noted:
So much money has gone into armoring and arming local law-enforcement since 9/11 that the federal government could have rebuilt post-Katrina New Orleans five times over and had enough money left in the kitty to provide job training and housing for every one of the record 41,000-plus homeless people in New York City. It could have added in the growing population of 15,000 homeless in Philadelphia, my hometown, and still have had money to spare. Add disintegrating Detroit, Newark, and Camden to the list. Throw in some crumbling bridges and roads, too.
The crash of 2008 changed a lot of things. "Austerity" was the new conservative buzz word, replacing the buzzword "terrorism". Despite that, one thing that remained fairly unaffected was the budget for homeland security. Opening with a budget of $42.4 billion in FY 2003, last year the overall budget of the Department of Homeland was nearly 60 billion. A modest increase over the years, some might say, but then what is more important is how the money has been spent.
Mother jones attempts to fill in the blanks:
Since 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security alone has doled out somewhere between $30 billion and $40 billion in direct grants to state and local law enforcement, as well as other first responders.All told, the federal government has appropriated about $635 billion, accounting for inflation, for homeland security-related activities and equipment since the 9/11 attacks.
The same tools and agencies that were created to defend America in the so-called War on Terror were now being used to make war on civil rights, the right to assemble and free speech in general.
And who paid for that?
Why you did, of course.
The Meaning of Terrorism
In a Rolling Stone exclusive, Mıchael Hastıngs noted that a DHS report on the Occupy Wall Street protests begins with:
"mass gatherings associated with public protest movements can have disruptive effects on transportation, commercial, and government services, especially when staged in major metropolitan areas."
But is disruption actually "terrorism?" The authors of that report never even question this premise. (And the same question can be asked to other countries who are apparently even less concerned by civil liberties, such as Bahrain or Turkey.)
The five-page report tells us that "large scale demonstrations which also carry the potential for violence, presenting a significant challenge for law enforcement."
The Rolling Stone article also quotes another passage:
The growing support for the OWS movement has expanded the protests’ impact and increased the potential for violence. While the peaceful nature of the protests has served so far to mitigate their impact, larger numbers and support from groups such as Anonymous substantially increase the risk for potential incidents and enhance the potential security risk to critical infrastructure (CI).
The continued expansion of these protests also places an increasingly heavy burden on law enforcement and movement organizers to control protesters. As the primary target of the demonstrations, financial services stands the sector most impacted by the OWS protests. Due to the location of the protests in major metropolitan areas, heightened and continuous situational awareness for security personnel across all CI sectors is encouraged."
"Controlling protesters"? Is this really a proper expression to use in the land of the free where the right to protest is formally adopted into its constitution? When did Homeland Security get into the business of "control" citizens?
* * *
While not absolute- and none of our constitutional rights are absolute- the United States Constitution explicitly guarantees 'the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances'" in the First Amendment.
Wasn't that exactly what the Occupy Wall Street was all about? Any encroachment like free speech zones and issuing permits should have citizens concerned.
The freedom of peaceful assembly is not only protected by the constitution but has also been adopted as an international human right by
- Universal Declaration of Human Rights - Article 20
- International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights - Article 21
- European Convention on Human Rights - Article 11
- American Convention on Human Rights - Article 15
Most shocking of all is the fact that we have now seen protestors against gun control take to the street fully armed. With school shooting reaching epidemic levels, advocates of tighter gun control had ever reason to be alarmed and intimidated by these armed groups.
Isn't this terrorism, strictly speaking?
Yet, where was Homeland Security? Why haven't we seen the same heavy-handed methods used by NYPD on peaceful and unarmed protester in the streets of Manhattan.
Some would say the answer is obvious, too obvious to even put into words. I will try.
Until these armed Second Amendment groups show up one fine morning on Wall Street, scaring the living daylights out of the elite, they will be ignored. No matter how threatening they seem to average citizens.
The bottom line is, unfortunately, it's all a matter of whose interests are being threatened and who exactly is being terrorized.
Scaling Down the Domestic Threat
After 9/11, the Republicans led the way in casting off the constitutional prohibitions in the name of protecting the country. Now they are back to talking about NSA violations on privacy. Does this mean that they have concluded the war on terrorism?
Actually Obama is missing a important opportunity.
Let's hear the opposing party say it loud and clear. Let's hear Boehner and the others say that civil liberties- like privacy, the right to assemble, freedom of speech (and protest) must take priority over our Homeland Security defense against terrorists. That our vigilance against attack must be maintained but the war on terrorism cannot go on forever.
I won't be holding my breath and neither should you.
Of course, I would welcome this clarification. Only then can the real discussion begin. Then the public can begin debating the necessity of having such an extreme civil defense agency.
And maybe American citizens can hear how the Department of Homeland Security will be scaled back in future as well.
If not, what will remain- after the war on terror has long been forgotten- will be an effective but expensive edifice for an American police state.