MorganRants

Things I am passionate about. Injustice, stupidity, intolerance, bigotry and small-mindedness. Oh and there might just be some humor to offset the whole thing.

Our view on civil liberties: Convention hosts regard your rights as a nuisance

Posted by morganwrites on August 1, 2008

Denver’s plans will keep protesters out of sight and out of earshot.

The delegates who’ll wave signs, speak their minds and nominate a presidential candidate at the Democratic National Convention next month in Denver will be treated by the city like royalty. But the people who want to wave signs, speak their minds and demonstrate outside the convention hall have already gotten a taste of Denver’s hospitality. They’re being treated like a bunch of pests.

City officials stalled for months after the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado sought information about convention plans. The city responded only after several groups sued, and then with a plan that treats free speech like the flu. Anyone showing symptoms will be isolated, particularly from delegates.

A February promise from Mayor John Hickenlooper that at least one designated parade route would end “within sight and sound of the convention site” was essentially abandoned. The route now ends several blocks away, and parades must end one hour before convention sessions begin.

Meanwhile, demonstrators who want to be near the hall, where their message can be heard and seen, will be confined to a “demonstration zone” surrounded by mesh wire and concrete barriers. It is about two football fields from the hall’s main entrances. It looks as if the delegates would need superhuman powers to see or hear the marchers. Which seems to be precisely the idea.

It is all a very strange fit for a political convention in a nation where people prize nothing quite as much as their freedom to speak their minds, particularly about politicians. Their right to do so is enshrined in the Constitution’s First Amendment, along with a right to assemble and protest.

Particularly since 9/11, the stated reason for pushing protests far from the action has been security, a valid concern. Unstated is that neither political party wants a repeat of the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, where anti-war protests turned into melees with police, and the televised turmoil helped doom the party’s ticket. A little common sense could strike an appropriate balance.

Instead, host cities use security and far less valid issues as excuses to squelch speech. In 2004, New York City declared Central Park off limits to two huge demonstrations. One concern? That protesters might tear up the park’s sprawling Great Lawn. The same year, Boston reached a new low: For the Democratic convention, it set up what’s best described as a cage for protesters, under railroad tracks and covered by razor wire. A federal judge called it “grim, mean and oppressive.”

This summer, St. Paul is doing a bit better: Marchers will be able to get within 84 feet of the Republican National Convention, but they must end the parade by midafternoon. Teresa Nelson of the ACLU of Minnesota says, “We have a permit to march to an empty building.”

At least they’ll get closer than the folks in Colorado, where Nita Gonzales, a Denver native and longtime organizer, says the city is merely paying “lip service to civil liberties.”

Both cities’ leaders need a remedial course in American values. In 2004, in the face of Boston’s oppressive rules, U.S. District Judge Douglas Woodlock put it well when he wrote that protesters “are not meddling interlopers. … They are participants in our democratic life.” It’s tough to participate when you’re behind a fence and blocks away from where you can be seen and heard.

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