By Marya Burke
The very first amendment of our constitution states: “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech… or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” This amendment enshrines the actions of protest and solidarity that make democratic practice possible. In fact, such practices were largely responsible for the existence of these United States—and they (and we) are under attack again.
What are the tools of the masses? How are the voices of the people expressed? The traditions of collective protest are longstanding and, dare I say, universal. We bring our voices with our bodies to physically take up space in the political arena. We join together, literally through linked arms and united chants, and (more and more commonly) through the virtual nodes of technology.
On March ninth, after it received all but three votes in the House and unanimous support in the Senate, President Obama signed HR 347, the “Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011,” into law. Not a single Democrat voted against the bill. This law expands on existing legislation to make it a felony—a serious criminal offense punishable by a one-to-ten-year prison term—to “enter or remain in” an area designated as “restricted.” What qualifies as “restricted” is somewhat vague—arguably, intentionally so. Specified areas include “a building or grounds where the President or other person protected by the Secret Service is or will be temporarily visiting” and “a building or grounds so restricted in conjunction with an event designated as a special event of national significance” (or NSSE). These two qualifications allow for sweeping application of this law.
Secret Service “protection” has been provided for a wide range of politicians and public figures from the U.S. and abroad. Many such individuals are involved in contentious issues of interest to all people. Furthermore, what constitutes an event of “national significance” is left to the discretion of the Department of Homeland Security. Virtually any large protest could be designated as an event of “national significance,” making any demonstrations in the vicinity illegal. Recent examples include: Super Bowl XXXVI, the funerals of Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, the Academy Awards, the 2008 Democratic and Republican National Conventions, and the G-8, G-20 and World Trade Organization meetings.
The law also criminalizes any action “that impedes or disrupts the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions” and “obstructs or impedes ingress or egress to or from any restricted building or grounds.” While the government has always included some restriction on access (think of the penned-in protesters in “free speech zones” in Minneapolis), this legislation goes further and criminalizes nearly all forms of protest, whether it be in the form of actually raising your voice to speak or through one’s silent physical presence itself. This element of the law is, perhaps, its most damaging element regarding democratic practice because, as Jeanine Molloff, contributor to the online progressive community at Firedoglake.com, points out: “Protest in its very nature is intended to disrupt government business as usual, for without such disruption the protest would be as effective as a leaky condom.”
The federal law reflects a larger trend of suppressing dissent in any form all across the country. While federal “representatives” were considering H.R. 347, Wyoming saw a bill introduced that would give the state the power, in an “emergency,” to create its own standing army through conscription, print its own currency, acquire military aircraft, suspend the legislature, and establish martial law. The “doomsday law” was defeated by a scarily narrow margin of 30-27. The new Michigan law that allows for an appointed official of the Governor to disband local governments echoes these issues, and many other states are proposing similar legislation.
Furthermore, H.R. 347 comes on the heels of the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (see the Public i January 2012 issue), that gives the President the power to order the incarceration of any person—including a US citizen—anywhere in the world without charge or trial.
The combinations of state and federal bills represent an all-out attack on the rights of U.S. citizens—especially wherever those rights might be inconvenient for the power elite. As legal/political blogger Gene Howington, notes, “[the NDAA] poses a threat to your Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights,” and H.R. 347 “is aimed at your First Amendment rights of Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Assembly and Freedom to Petition.” This combined assault represents a united state; however, we are states united under the rule of power and money, not under the will of the people.
To review H.R.347 in pdf:
To contact any member of the US Senate regarding their vote:
Though, be forewarned: how long will it take before the internet becomes an NSSE site?
Further note: The passage of H.R. 347 has been the subject of a virtual blackout in the media.