“There’s a North American strategy to take away the right to mass protest.” — Michael Ratner

Citizen Action Monitor, July 27, 2011

We use the word – in the US we call it “it chills your rights” — because it’s basically sending a message to the next demonstration, you come out there, you’re not going home tonight. You better bring your toothbrush. And that’s a bad message for peaceful demonstrators, a really bad message. And it’s a way of undercutting mass protests because, as I said when I began, what they’re afraid of most, I think, in this economic downturn, the austerity measures, is mass protests, which we started to see in Madison, Wisconsin, in the United States, and which we’re starting to see in Canada, which we have certainly seen across Europe. I remember when they were happening in Europe over the years, I kept saying, when are we going to start having this? And now, of course, austerity is kicking in, in the States. We’re seeing it happen here as well.” — Michael Ratner from an interview with Paul Jay of the Real News Network

Watch the full 10:50-minute interview with Michael Ratner here, followed by my transcript of selected portions of the interview, including added subheadings and text highlighting to facilitate browsing.

TRANSCRIPT

There Is A North America-Wide Strategy To Take Away The Right To Mass Protest by Michael Rattner, The Real News Network, July 27, 2011

Paul Jay – A year ago in Toronto, more than a thousand people were arrested while they protested the G-20 that was taking place. Most of them were let go within a few days, and that was part of the problem. No charges were laid, and there was thus no way for people whose rights the Ontario Ombudsman said were violated could have any recourse. In fact, the Ombudsman said the arrests at the Toronto G-20 were the most massive compromise of civil rights in the history of Canada.

But is this only happening in Toronto or is this, in fact, part of a North American-wide strategy on how to deal with dissent? And what about the right to mass protest right across the continent? Now joining us to talk about all of this is Michael Ratner. He is the President of the Center for Constitutional Rights. His is also the co-author of a new book, Hell No: Your right to Dissent in Twenty-First-Century America.

So, first of all, talk a bit about what inspired you to write the book.

According to Ratner, “Protest is a fundamental underpinning of how we make progressive change in the world”

Michael Ratner – Since I’ve been a young activist, protest has been a key part of my life and a key part of how we actually change what’s going on in the Unites States and across the world. Whether from Vietnam to Central America, to the beginnings of the war with Iraq where we really had millions of people in the street all over the world. So, to me, protest is really a fundamental underpinning of how we make progressive social change in the world. And of course we saw recent examples in Egypt, Tahrir square, we saw a recent effort at that in Madison, Wisconsin, where they were protesting the cutbacks on workers – so just the main method really that people have, which is really acting with their feet in an organized way out in the streets.

There’s evidence of a pattern of coordinated action from a variety of police forces and military intelligence particularly against mass demonstrations

Paul Jay – It was interesting what happened in Toronto with the G-20 [protest]. . . . Of course we’ve seen what mass protests in Europe have done. They really are shaking the political debate. But here they seem to have a strategy to suppress. So to what extent do you think this is actually a broader strategy than just one event in Toronto?

Michael Ratner I think it’s a very broad strategy and I can articulate some of that across the United States in particular. One interesting thing you said is in Canada it was the G-20 and austerity. And if you look at a number of these protests, yes, some are about the Iraq war, some are about other things, but the massive big ones are about economics, the G-20, the G-8, the WTO, the World Trade Organization – those are where you’re getting hundreds of thousands of people sometimes in the streets. That’s Madison, Wisconsin about the austerity that was going to be imposed on the workers in Wisconsin. The WTO in Seattle was again about the WTO making up these trade agreements that were going to really impoverish people. The G-20 in Florida in 2000, in which massive surveillance, massive destruction was done against the demonstrators, was again about austerity. We had a G-8 in Pittsburgh again in which massive demonstrations again massive intervention. And if we look at the techniques used you would have to say there’s a coming together first of a variety of police forces from all over the United States and conceivably even working with people in Canada.

Paul Jay – Well, we know they did because we know the deputy chief of the Toronto Police is now or was the former chair of the advisory committee to the FBI College. So there’s clearly a North American coordinated strategy. The other thing that we also know in the G-20 in Toronto is it wasn’t just the RCMP who ran the show, but there was a big role of military intelligence. And we also know how close the Canadian military intelligence is to American military intelligence. So there’s a lot of cross-border. . .

Michael Ratner – Yeah, we could write the book the same way. At every one of the demonstrations you look at in the United States, the big ones are all the same – military intelligence, helicopters from this unit of the military, FBI, local police – all working in an integrated form.

Police also infiltrate all of the protest organizations, even the completely peaceful ones

Michael Ratner — And it’s not like it just happens at the demonstration. One of the things we point out in Hell No, in the book, is that this stuff starts by the police and the military months, if not years, before these demonstrations. It includes starting to infiltrate all of the organizations, or many of the key organizations who are organizing the demonstrations – even if they’re completely peaceful organizations or even if they’re slightly civil disobedient organizations, which are considered to be an utterly legitimate form of protest. So they infiltrate people into those groups.  They have no right to infiltrate those people into those groups. These are protected groups, at least in the United States, First Amendment, presumably similar kinds of protected laws in Canada. They infiltrate those people, they surveil them physically. They do a variety of tactics against groups.

Paul Jay – There’s pretty good evidence that some of the infiltration that took place with some of the anarchist groups preparing for the Toronto event, that one, at least one, if not more actually, of some of the strongest advocates for breaking windows and some of the more exuberant forms of civil disobedience.

Police use a variety of tactics to suppress mass protests especially ones targetting government austerity measures

Michael Ratner – Not unexpected. We call them agent provocateurs. That’s what they do. They’ve done that for generations in this country [US] and they’re doing it again as protests get more and more massive, particularly around austerity. Sure, we’ve seen it at protests around the war and other kinds of depredations of rights, but the austerity stuff is really bringing out masses of people that aren’t necessarily used to going to demonstrations. It’s bringing out union people, workers, immigrants, lots of people who are really being just cut out of any kind of economic rights in the country.

So they begin by infiltrating, they then demonize the groups. So in the United States, we’ve had purely passivist groups – out of Pittsburgh we had the anti-war groups, the Quaker groups – they were investigated under terrorist designations. So they start terrorism and once they use the word ‘terrorism’ they bring in all kinds of masses of surveillance. So they demonize the groups, and they do it in the newspapers.

Then they all demonize them and say it’s going to be like Seattle. And Seattle is the WTO demonstrations in which they falsely claimed in the newspapers after the demonstration that they threw Molotov cocktails and did all kinds of violence. In fact, none of that happened in Seattle. But they now use what they call the Seattle method of policing once they get into the demonstrations.

So, at least in this country, they put people in pens to demonstrate. You can’t have any mass group any more. They deny permits and make you go to a certain place. So when we had the demonstrations against the war in Iraq we went to, we wanted to demonstrate in front of the United Nations on 1st Avenue. We were prohibited from a demonstration in front of the United Nations. [We] had to be taken away [and] put in pens. Once they have the people in pens who are demonstrating, then they do like they did in Canada – mass arrests.

At the Republican National Convention in 2004 in New York, downtown there were 400 people beginning a demonstration. They [police] took nets, literally nets, and they covered the entire group with nets, including people pushing their baby carriages, people just strolling by. They arrested 400 people in one mass arrest, who had done nothing wrong. I mean nothing. They were demonstrating, and a lot of the people were just standing by the side. Where did they put them? They put them in what we call “Guantanamo on the Hudson” — a big bus warehouse with oil and environmental junk all over it. And did they bring them to court in one day? No! They took three to four days. And they did that purposely so that those people wouldn’t rejoin the demonstration. I could give you a dozen examples like that — a dozen examples where they [enforcement agents] all cooperate.

And what we really talk about in the book is how this has gained since 9/11 in particular on the excuse that terrorism is going to be involved in some way in these demonstrations. They even say well terrorists might attack these demonstrations. And that’s the kind of BS I get.

Paul Jay – Well one of the things they did in Toronto was they used various pieces of legislation. The most onerous one was something called the Public Works Protection Act., which the Ontario Ombudsman called a form of Marshall Law, which allowed them to start asking people to produce identification, to be searched without any probable cause. But they also used something called Unlawful Assembly, which they just declare even if there’s no violence going on. A crazy piece of legislation which I don’t think you have in the United States called Breach of the Queen’s Peace.

The threat of arrest is a way of “undercutting” attendance at mass protests against austerity measures, which authorities are most fearful of

The point of all this is that they arrest a lot of people and most of them they just let go after the demonstration’s over. So it’s actually very difficult to have any sort of come-back or accountability even though you’ve lost the right to protest, you didn’t get charged, so there’s no court case and then you’re in some kind of lawsuit which is very difficult to fund.

Michael Ratner – I was in law school during those days [of the Vietnam War protests]. The real effect — if I’m a young law student, am I going to go out on a demonstration and get myself arrested when I have to through the bar and all the character committees and all these committees to get through? Am I going to want even the notice of an arrest on my record?

We use the word – in the US we call it “it chills your rights” — because it’s basically sending a message to the next demonstration, you come out there, you’re not going home tonight. You better bring your toothbrush. And that’s a bad message for peaceful demonstrators, a really bad message. And it’s a way of undercutting mass protests because, as I said when I began, what they’re afraid of most, I think, in this economic downturn, the austerity measures, is mass protests, which we started to see in Madison, Wisconsin, in the United States, and which we’re starting to see in Canada, which we have certainly seen across Europe. I remember when they were happening in Europe over the years, I kept saying, when are we going to start having this? And now, of course, austerity is kicking in, in the States. We’re seeing it happen here as well.

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