Protest panelists: Police need to respect right of assembly

Friday, January 21, 2000

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The First Amendment right to assemble peaceably should guarantee the right to gather without fear of being harmed, a veteran protester of the civil rights movement said today.

“If we (as protesters) are acting on the principles that are embodied in the Constitution, we should not have to fear that we’re going to lose our lives in the process,” said Steve Moore, a professor of African-American Studies at Antioch College in Ohio.

In 1968, Moore was among a group of college students attacked by police during a demonstration at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg. Three people were killed and more than 30 were wounded.

Moore joined three other panelists for the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University discussion “Assembly: The Forgotten Freedom.”

“The Kent State tragedy — like Orangeburg and Jackson State and many other incidents where students were killed in the ’60s and early ’70s — were clear-cut examples of how the First Amendment was violated in America during that time period,” said panelist Alan Canfora, director of the Kent May 4 Center in Kent, Ohio. Canfora was one of nine students wounded on May 4, 1970, when members of the Ohio National Guard fired on students participating in an anti-war demonstration at Kent State University. Four students were killed.

Canfora said the threat of police violence against protesters didn’t end in the 1970s.

“I think there’s still a danger in this country where the law enforcement officials have not learned the proper lessons of history,” he said.

Juliette Beck, one of the organizers of the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle last November, described how real that threat is.

During the WTO protests, “excessive force was used with the (rubber) bullets and the chemical warfare (tear gas),” she said.

“There were arrests made at total random. People who were walking through the streets were arrested. Any people gathering on street corners were arrested. People wearing gas masks had their gas masks ripped off them. … The government was willing to suspend our Constitution, our First Amendment to perpetuate (the WTO’s) unaccountable free-trade policies. That to me marked a very sad day in democracy.”

The Rev. Paul Schenck is an anti-abortion activist whose First Amendment case, Schenck v. Pro-Choice Network of Western New York, made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1997, the high court struck down a New York law that allowed 15-foot floating buffer zones around clinic patients. Schenck said that it’s important to remember that police are not perfect.

“The police sometimes get out of hand because they’re human beings too — they’re not superhuman beings. If they think a rock was thrown and it was just a ball of paper, they may react to the rock,” he said.

Schenck added that the key to having increasingly peaceful demonstrations is having open discussions with police and other officials after demonstrations.

“There’s a lot greater willingness of the authorities to admit that they went too far if you’re admitting going too far,” he said. “If you’re willing to admit [you] made mistakes, they’ll admit they made mistakes and the next time you’ll have a more peaceful environment.”

Moore added that it is everyone’s responsibility — protesters as well as police — to ensure peaceful assemblies.

The police “too, have to feel that [the right to assemble peaceably is] important, that it’s incumbent upon them as part of the institutional fabric of the society to affirm those rights,” he said. “I think that everyone has a role to play.”