Trying to stifle protest is not good for democracy

Sunday, July 18, 2004

The prospect of demonstrators by the thousands showing up for the national political conventions to exercise a democratic tradition as well as a constitutional right strikes fear — and some loathing — in the hearts of public officials and convention organizers.

That is a painful irony, because we are a nation steeped in protest. The Declaration of Independence from the British monarch and government was a proud act of protest. From the Boston Tea Party through the civil rights movement and the anti-war protests, we have marched and demonstrated our way toward a stronger democracy.

We have not just tolerated dissent, we have thrived on it.

In recent years, however, we have begun to marginalize, even criminalize, it.

The Democratic Convention will be July 26-29 in Boston. The Republicans will gather in New York City Aug. 30-Sept. 2. For months, authorities in both cities — while earnestly proclaiming their commitment to the First Amendment rights of protesters— have been working furiously to put as many barriers as possible in the way of demonstrators and as much distance as possible between them and the political leaders and delegates attending the conventions.

New convention-week policies in Boston have frustrated and discouraged those who want to send a message of criticism and dissent to the Democratic Party and its presidential nominee. The new policies greatly lengthen and complicate the event-application process, give officials wider discretion for denial of permits, and force some early applicants to resubmit under the new guidelines.

It’s much the same story in New York, where protesters seek to send messages to the president and his party. When organizers for one massive demonstration sought permission to rally in Central Park, the city suggested they hold their event in Queens. The group was not impressed, since the convention will be in Manhattan. Then the city offered West Side Highway, a venue more appropriate for a parade than a gathering of 250,000 people.

This sort of back and forth has evolved in recent years into an elaborate and sophisticated strategy to frustrate and discourage protests. The strategy seems designed to build public resentment and fear of protesters, discourage participation in demonstrations by ordinary citizens, harass and intimidate organizers, drain away energy and funds with arrests and prosecutions, and divert demonstrators from their purpose.

One of the most pernicious components of this strategy has been the so-called “free-speech zone,” a place set aside for the demonstrators, usually out of sight and out of hearing from the people the protesters wish to address. All of this, of course, is less about free-speech zones for protesters than it is about comfort zones for public officials and political leaders.

The impact of this strategy, whether intended or not, is to thwart the First Amendment rights of assembly and speech at a time when they are most important. The political convention is the occasion for all political messages — not just those that leaders or parties want to present. It offers an ideal — and constitutional — platform for the protester who lacks access to the press or power. At no other time will the dissenting message be more immediate, more relevant, and thus more essential. Another day and another venue won’t do.

Unfortunately, political conventions are not the only places where dissenting voices are discouraged, silenced or punished. Constitutionally suspect police tactics have been deployed against demonstrators at a wide variety of meetings and events. Hundreds of demonstrators, as well as innocent bystanders and journalists, have been arrested, and many prosecuted. The Secret Service has worked with local police to keep the president from seeing or hearing people with critical messages at his public appearances.

Many ordinary citizens seek similar insulation in their own lives. They want to be protected from contradictory views or voices. Radio and cable audiences prefer outlets and pundits that confirm rather than challenge their own views. Media moguls pander to this anti-democratic drift by offering up partisanship and polemic in larger and larger doses.

As a result, we are increasingly polarized in our ideologies. Ads that attack rather than inform are the weapon of choice for political campaigns. We regard those with differing views not as fellow participants in a democratic adventure but as enemies to quash. Rather than listen and respond, we prefer to silence by intimidation and isolation or to crush with raw political power.

Our national conventions once were robust and riveting affairs, with gavel-to-gavel coverage on network television. Now, scripted and predictable, they have come to symbolize a tendency among too many Americans toward shutting up and shutting out viewpoints other than our own.

If that tendency endures, our democracy cannot. We should not fear dissenting views but embrace them as opportunities to improve our own positions and to display our confidence in the give-and-take of democratic discourse.

Without disagreement, even discord, political discourse is mere noise and prattle. A people talking only to themselves and shouting at all others gurgles with an awful sound: the death rattle of democracy.