The Criminalization of Protest in the US

The US today freely interferes in the governments of so many other nations, fueling unrest and financing violence, seeking to impose on these countries a peculiarly American form of “open government” which it can control, but has always severely restricted any such activity either suspected or real, on its own soil. We have already read about the Un-American Activities Act [1] and the extensive government policies to prohibit political activism or promote other forms of government or capitalism in those years, and I briefly mentioned the Sedition Act passed by President Woodrow Wilson‘s government in the early 1900s. [2]

By Larry Romanoff

This latter legislation was directed against all Americans and used to firmly silence criticism of government policies. Under this Act, the government engaged in countless illegal searches and seizures of property and imprisoned tens of thousands of US citizens simply for criticising Wilson’s desire for war. The authorities organised gangs to regularly intimidate and beat up citizens, unrelated to the propaganda war on the Germans. Wilson admitted openly that many of his laws and activities were unconstitutional, but often protected himself with claims of national security.

In 1940, under President Franklin Roosevelt, the US created a law known as the Smith Act [3] which made it a crime in the US to “knowingly or willfully advocate, abet, advise, or teach the … desirability or propriety of overthrowing … any government in the United States”. And for the following decades the government prosecuted thousands of individuals who proposed alternatives to the US system of capitalism, or promoted any form of socialism or attempted to form another political party. The act was exclusively intended to suppress any and all forms of political dissent in the United States. Many people were imprisoned or disappeared simply for publishing or circulating pamphlets or articles that discussed alternative political or economic views.

The government created internment camps where anyone suspected of being a subversive agent could be imprisoned indefinitely without charge, disappearing into a secret prison system. US authorities still continue the process they began more than 60 years ago of using the IRS – the US Tax Department – as a weapon of intimidation against those who dare to challenge the political or capitalist systems. According to records, tens of thousands of individuals and groups, colleges, charities and even religious organisations have been mercilessly harassed by the IRS as punishment for political activism.

In 1950 The US passed the McCarran Internal Security Act that effectively prohibited even the discussion of other forms of government within the US. That law required that all persons objecting to the American multi-party political system were to be registered as subversive agents, a process that would automatically deny them most of their basic rights including the ability to travel freely and would place severe restrictions on the kinds of jobs they could hold. They were also subject to arbitrary deportation even though they were American citizens.

Failure to register as subversive agents would lead to a $10,000 fine and five years in jail for each day of non-compliance, all in a circumstance where the definition of such persons and their need to register were by no means clear. Anyone interested in political reform or an increase in social justice therefore faced a stark choice: either register as a subversive agent and enemy alien and face personal destruction, or avoid registration and face certain bankruptcy and life in prison. It was apparent this law was a forceful method of using fear to intimidate individuals from criticising the government since its application was entirely arbitrary and with no transparency whatever.[4]

The McCarran Act was a far-reaching piece of legislation that served to remove most of the civil liberties from a great many people on what was essentially an arbitrary basis, the set of laws that gave Senator McCarthy the freedom to introduce fascism on a grand scale, and worked in conjunction with the House Un-American Activities Committee. The Act’s stated purpose was to protect the US against subversive activities by requiring registration of hostile foreign propagandists and agents, but it did far more than this. It prevented people from becoming citizens, it could withdraw citizenship, deport individuals, prevent their employment, and much more. In all, it had far-reaching consequences for both civil liberties in the US – which it totally trashed – and as a template for its own resurrection in the 1980s and beyond. It targeted intellectuals, anyone who might have written criticism of the US government. One Dr. Morrison received an unfortunate summons to a Congressional Committee simply for writing a review of a book that described the human horrors of nuclear war. At the time, the US was desperately trying to produce an improved atomic bomb and widely used the powers of this Act to silence all public criticism of its plans by categorising objections as subversive and treasonous.

RELATED CONTENT: Antiwar Organizing Could Soon be a Crime in NJ! (Coming Soon to Your State?)

The Act prohibited the writing or circulation of, or any teaching of, opposition to the US form of government or the removal or replacement of the US governmental system. It was forbidden to be a member of any organisation that would “raise the presumption that such person was not attached to the principles of the Constitution of the United States”. It was forbidden to advocate any economic or political doctrine foreign to the US. The Act stipulated that all persons arbitrarily defined by the FBI as ‘political activists’ would be confined to automatic forced detention on the spurious grounds they might conspire to commit sabotage or espionage.

It was forbidden for any employee of the US government or of any US corporation “to communicate in any manner or by any means, to any other person whom such officer or employee knows or has reason to believe to be an agent or representative of any foreign government”. No such “agent of a foreign government” was permitted to “seek, accept or hold” any employment in the US, nor to conceal the fact that he was such an agent. All US citizens were forbidden from funding, advising or assisting any such person or organisation, and it was forbidden by law to associate with those who were not “well disposed to the good order and happiness” of America.

This legislation and other similar Acts are still in force in the US today, raising yet again the vast discrepancy between what the Americans preach externally and what they do at home. Once again, the Americans pressure China vigorously to freely and without restriction permit unlimited seditious American propaganda into China, openly declaring their intention to overthrow China’s governmental system, yet deport or imprison for life those attempting such acts in their own country.

And once again we can ask why, if these “seditious foreign agents” must be registered and identified in the US, cannot be funded or even communicated with, cannot publish or distribute any material contradictory to the American government and capitalist system, it is okay for the Americans to do precisely these things in China. Why is it not equally appropriate for China to force all Americans and their agents to register as “seditious aliens”, forbid them to communicate with Chinese and forbid employment? And why isn’t it okay for China to just deport all those Americans who are not “well disposed to the good order and happiness of China”? We must remind ourselves yet one more time that democracy is a coin with only one side.

Today, the proliferation of ‘anti-terror’ legislation in the US essentially duplicates all this past legislation in its fascist glory, but updated to the present.

The Patriot Act made all Americans potential enemies of the state, and the National Defense Authorization Act gave the US military and espionage agencies the ability to ignore all considerations of law or civil rights. You have read of some of the problems in US agriculture and the problems with so-called “factory farms” where animals are raised in abhorrent conditions.

Today in the US, anyone investigating the toxic conditions and abuses on these farms risks being prosecuted under the same terrorism legislation, for causing “losses to American businesses” owned by the top 1%. One Ph.D candidate at MIT, whose name appeared on one of these prosecution lists, wrote,

“It is deeply sobering to see one’s name in an FBI file proposing terrorism charges. It is even more sobering to realize the supposedly terroristic activities in question are merely exposing the horrific cruelty of factory farms and educating the public about what goes on behind those closed doors”.

Simply, the puppet-masters who control the White House and also direct the large corporations are avoiding exposure and prosecution and silencing all political and anti-capitalist sentiment by directing the justice system to target civilian investigators and activists as terrorists.

The process now operating within the US is that every threat, real or imagined, to the established political-capitalist order will produce increased public repression. And it is not only US government agencies and police forces that are involved in this civil suffocation; the major American banks and the Foundations play an increasingly deep role in subverting even further the free expression of dissent in America. We have already seen that the banks that were the target of the Occupy Wall Street protests surreptitiously funded the group in order to manage its direction and ensure its demise. Foundations like Rockefeller and Carnegie have done the same, with the idea of financing and participating in various civil rights movements in order to better control them and prevent the movements from taking their natural course as popular expressions of public sentiment against an unfair and brutal system. They were co-opting the movements to suit the interests of the top 1%, to make the world “safe for capitalism”. Some states have introduced legislation to criminalise all investigations of corporate crimes, in transparent attempts to use frighteningly powerful and unlimited legislation to protect corporate profits. Even photographing some of these actions will be classified as terrorism and subject to the full arbitrary power of these laws. We have reached the point where a camera is now a terrorist weapon, the possession of which is punishable by life imprisonment in a black prison without any judicial process or recourse.

RELATED CONTENT: The FBI Has a Long History of Treating Political Dissent as Terrorism

Congress recently passed a new law that effectively criminalises all public protests, and categorises civil society movements like Occupy Wall Street as “domestic terrorism”. The Patriot Act and the National Defense Authorization Act give the military and espionage agencies unlimited powers. The law is deliberately vague, so that almost anything could be included within the criminal definition, and so broad that almost every American today could be labeled a suspected terrorist. The intent is to intimidate all citizens and stifle any public criticism of US government acts or policies. Any of the following actions may get a US citizen labeled as a suspected terrorist today:

(1) Speaking out against government policies,

(2) Protesting against anything,

(3) Questioning the government’s many wars,

(4) Asking questions about Wall Street Banks and the FED,

(5) Taking pictures or video, especially of police.

According to US Department of Defense training manuals, any public protest is considered “low-level terrorism” today, and all anti-war protesters are now classified as terrorists.

The US government is using the Patriot Act and various other bits of new legislation not only to outlaw most of the basic civil freedoms in the country, but these laws are so vague as to permit virtually any domestic atrocity against civilians.

Anyone today who speaks out against any US government policies can be arbitrarily classified as either a terrorist or an “unlawful enemy combatant” and imprisoned indefinitely without charge or trial. Few people seem aware that the US media are compelled by law to report to the FBI/CIA all communication (letters to the Editor, etc.) that is critical of the US government.

Another fact not widely known is that thousands of Americans are imprisoned each year for a single Tweet, a single Facebook post or a single Text message. A simple post on social media or pressing “like” on Facebook, can be deemed “terroristic threatening” in the US, and result in a sentence of three to five years in prison.

Many government agencies, including the military, now actively monitor all US social media like Facebook and Twitter to identify those who criticise the US government, then seek them out and interrogate them. This has a particularly chilling effect on American so-called “free speech” when citizens know that espionage agencies are now monitoring every online post and comment. It is not widely known, but US authorities constantly monitor the social media, bulletin boards and other Internet sites for potential political dissent, and often exercise their authority to order people to disperse from “unlawful online assembly”, which definition is as arbitrary as the authorities wish to make it.

Moreover, leaked documents revealed that any students who could be identified as having been involved in protests, or posted public but ‘sensitive’ information, or involved in various political activisms, would forever be prohibited from employment with any part of the US government. One university student who had taken part in the Occupy Wall Street protests later said, “The system in place sublimely manipulates our social reality in ways obvious only when we realize that there is nothing between us and the police but fear”. She added that if the protestors had held out and actually tried to make changes in the system, her participation would exist in a permanent record and she would never be able to get a job. And in any case, she held out no hope that the citizens could ever really change anything.

The DHS hired defense contractor General Dynamics for a $12 million program to monitor the Internet for “reports that reflect adversely on DHS, especially those that have a negative spin on DHS activities”. These agencies are not monitoring so-called “terrorist” activity, but normal social activity and political commentary. In its defense, DHS claimed the released documents were “outdated” – though they were new – and that social media were monitored for “situational awareness of man-made threats” and not to police disparaging opinions about the federal government. According to their spokesman, the manual’s instruction that analysts should identify media reports that reflect adversely on DHS activities was not at all meant to silence criticism, but simply “to identify areas where DHS wasn’t doing a good job, and to help it improve”. I can scarcely imagine a greater lie than that one. [5] [6]

In yet another attempt to silence political dissension, New York State proposed new legislation that would outlaw anonymous speech on the Internet, on the foolish pretense of discouraging ‘cyber-bullying’. The legislation states that any online comment attracting an objection, mostly from the government, must be deleted immediately unless the website or social medium clearly displays the poster’s true identity, IP address and residential home address. This was not presented as a removal of a civil right but rather the granting of a new one – the government’s “right to know who is behind an anonymous internet posting”, on the basis that a valuable resource like the Internet “ought to be used properly”. Of course, there are few people anywhere so reckless as to expose themselves to the entire Internet world in this fashion, especially when it would invite a knock on the door. Naturally, government officials, media owners and anyone in the top 1% can continue to publish op-ed pieces without a byline, maintaining their own privacy while the peasants cannot.

In their book Manufacturing Consent, and writing of the elite domination of the media, Herman and Chomsky noted that the marginalisation of dissidents results from filters so natural that the media can easily convince themselves they are being objective, but the constraints are so powerful and so fundamentally built into the system that alternative choices are scarcely imaginable.

Ben Bagdikian wrote that the acceptable range of discourse determines what topics can be discussed and to what degree, which will be pushed into the shadows and which uppermost in the public mind. He claimed it is the power to treat some subjects obscurely and others in depth where the media ownership most effectively influences the news – and also the content in the public mind. And, as Chomsky has often noted, it is the assumptions that are not articulated that affect the range of public discourse. And again, it is the political-capitalist narrative that is so closely protected from dissenting voices.

Kevin Zeese and Margaret Flowers made these very accurate observations:

“Another tool is to create insecurity in the population so that people are unwilling to speak out and take risks for fear of losing their jobs and being unable to afford food, a home and health care. Changes in the work environment, such as the attack on unions and the war on whistleblowers, have led to greater job insecurity. Changes in college education also silence dissent, including the trend toward adjunct rather than tenured professors. Adjunct professors, now comprising 85 percent of faculty, are less willing to teach topics that are viewed as controversial. These, combined with massive student debt, are tools to silence the student population, once the center of transformative action.” (Truthout)

Notes

(1) HUAC – Definition, Hearings & Investigations; https://www.history.com/topics/cold-war/huac

(4) McCarran Internal Security Act of 1950; https://mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/1047/mccarran-act-of-1950
(5) Lawmaker Demands DHS Cease Monitoring of Blogs, Social Media; https://www.wired.com/2012/02/dhs-media-monitoring/

(6) Department Of Homeland Security Tells Congress Why It’s Monitoring Facebook, Twitter, blogs; https://www.fastcompany.com/1816814/department-homeland-security-tells-congress-why-its-monitoring-facebook-twitter-blogs

Larry Romanoff is a retired management consultant and businessman. He has held senior executive positions in international consulting firms, and owned an international import-export business. He has been a visiting professor at Shanghai’s Fudan University, presenting case studies in international affairs to senior EMBA classes. Mr. Romanoff lives in Shanghai and is currently writing a series of ten books generally related to China and the West. He can be contacted at: 2186604556@qq.com

Source URL: Global Research