Defining Terrorism Down: A New Film Cautions Us Not To Put The Republican National Convention Behind Us

Defining Terrorism Down: A New Film Cautions Us Not To Put The Republican National Convention Behind Us
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Like you, I am about to burst. My internal clock reads optimist, but I am surrounded by neurotic naysayers, dreading a McCain upset. I find myself ministering to them, as only an agnostic can, with empathy for the human condition; making no promises about the Hereafter.

Distracted from all else, I've become infantilized by the presidential race: I'm my five-year-old self, haranguing Dad from the rear seat of our Ford Galaxie 500: "Are we there yet?" and… "I have to pee."

Conversely, my adult child self, perhaps too familiar with Barry Schwartz's The Paradox of Choice, is over-stimulated by the layman's toolkit that technology has placed at my beck and call. So anxious am I that my iPhone has begun to resemble one of those diabetic meters: I check in on polling site so frequently that I should insist on a cut of Nate Silver's Google AdSense revenue. From there, I run a circuit across the political blogosphere, thirsting for updates on TalkingPointsMemo, looking for any fresh angle on TechPresident, scanning the vast tundra that is the Huffington Post.

Now, while everyone in my extended circle claims to be involved in this campaign, volunteering either their time or money -- and I will take them at their word -- it must be said that our deep-seated problems aren't simply going to vanish without a trace come the rosy fingers of Wednesday Obama dawn.

It's perhaps due to this nagging feeling, then, that makes the documentary Terrorizing Dissent (released online this past Thursday) so urgent. In case you're hazy (or heavens, preoccupied) you might not recall the imbroglios surrounding the 2004 Republican National Convention hosted by his honor, the once and future Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Crash course: During the RNC some 1,800 protesters were arrested by New York's Finest. Thanks to organizations like I-Witness Video, their actions became a matter of public scrutiny and some 400 arrests were immediately thrown out of court due owing to such extenuating factors as excessive force and false statements swore out by our men in blue.

The RNC indemnified the city for over $10M and, to this day, there are outstanding suits that the city refuses to settle, (as is customary) perhaps fearing the lengthening shadow of legal precedent. The crux of this story, however, took place way before delegates went east. The New York Times' Jim Dwyer was able to piece together that, as part of the pre-convention planning, undercover policeman infiltrated peace groups across fifteen cities (including the Quakers) that were committed to protest the RNC '04, a right of assembly explicitly enumerated in our First Amendment.

Whatever lessons carried forward from RNC '08, it appears that the wrong ones were learned. Prior to the September event, Democracy Now reported on the $50M allocated to the NYPD and Northern Command, as well as the Secret Service, to coordinate with the St. Paul Police Department to quote, unquote keep the peace.

In real terms this actually meant intimidating organizers months in advance, specifically the Poor People's March (yes, the Martin Luther King, Jr.-inspired initiative) as well as preemptively raiding the ad-hoc headquarters of I-Witness Video and the National Lawyers Guild the weekend immediately before the RNC. Not only were these tactics ratched up above and beyond those deployed during the '04 convention, but this time around law enforcement practiced detainment as way of holding journalists, legal observers, and protestors without the need for a charge, as a means to confiscate their materials – printed and technological -- as well as a strategy to simply take them out of play.

Terrorizing Dissent, crudely cut together just two months from the RNC '08, will leave you speechless. While the assailed crowd frequently chanted, "The World Is Watching," precious little coverage was provided in real-time by the mainstream media.

True, because the first day of the RNC was pre-empted by Hurricane Gustav, this provided C-SPAN with the flexibility (and need) to fill their airtime with protests, but only a handful of minutes were devoted to screening crowd scenes of police on horseback brutally kicking protestors, firing rubber bullets at close range, and unleashing smoke bombs and tear gas with impunity. Perhaps C-SPAN's producers were themselves worried about the repercussions.

True, Amy Goodman, the anchor of the nationally syndicated Democracy Now, was caught on camera being arrested --- even as Secret Service tore her press badge from her neck – and that video was immediately uploaded to YouTube where it garnered over 5M hits, but I fear that without evidence such as Terrorizing Dissent that we'll quietly pave over this conflict even as peaceful protestors were conflated as anarchists, and activists -- including a number of pre-school teachers -- stand trial for felony to commit conspiracy.

It is also germane to note that the state of Minnesota has taken it upon itself to redefine what we mean by terrorist. They have broadened the meaning to include property damage exceeding as little as $1,000. So: If you spray-paint "Stop The War In Iraq" and a cleanup crew works a double-shift on a Sunday, you could be branded a terrorist. The Minnesota law is also a flag to pending federal legislation, Jane Harman's (D-CA) overreaching "Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act" (HR 1955) which would empower Congress to create a commission with powers to arbitrarily decide which organizations constitute a "homegrown terrorist threat."

While shows like COPS have accustomed us to the use of hand-held cameras, here they aren't merely stylistic choices, or even chosen as a result of a cost-benefit analysis. Over forty contributors were on the scene, risking their health and welfare to act as media watchdogs, and to assert a citizen's right to protest. Terrorizing Dissent assays the tactics of the St. Paul Police Department, including the curtailing of the permitted Peace March (with headliners Rage Against The Machine) that ended with the crowd being rounded up and mass arrested two hours before said permit was to have expired.

Cheri Honkala of the Poor People's March received harassing calls from the Federal Justice Department throughout the summer, phoning her over concerns for "racial conflict" and imploring her to use their detail. She declined.

Apart from the media silence blanketing the broad implications of the use of force in the face of democratic participation, I worry about an arms race that is brewing. With each convention, hostilities and instruments seem to escalate. This go-round protestors had the wisdom to bring goggles to avert tear gas. Some of them even brought their own smoke bombs – presumably to fight smoke with smoke. Based on evidence of rubber bullets being fired off at close range – and no less than Amnesty International finding that the use of force was "disproportionate" -- I am anguished that 2012 will see its first fatalities. The solution is not to further disempower our Fourth Estate (as Amy Goodman said following her arrest, er…, detention: "A black eye for a journalist is a black eye on Democracy").

More recently Sarah Palin swung at the media for impugning her First Amendment rights in their criticism of her overheated campaign stump rhetoric. Swing and a miss. The media is and must exercise its First Amendment rights, as must its citizens. The footage of the St. Paul police force in head-to-toe riot gear, and the attendant ignorance feigned by Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher should be required viewing.

Perhaps the most effective moment in the film comes in the cross-cutting of tear gassing outside the Excel Energy Center to McCain's acceptance speech inside. As bombs are bursting in air, superimposed in the background, McCain thunders, "Don't be distracted by the ground noise and static." Indeed.

Erstwhile Republican and Libertarian Presidential candidate Bob Barr was profiled in last week's New Yorker. Like Giuliani, 9/11 was a turning point for Congressman Barr. But unlike Rudy he took the road less traveled: "I went through Reagan National after 9/11, and saw guardsmen with automatic weapons. It dawned on me that we’ve entered a whole new world. It may have made other passengers feel more secure, but it made me feel dramatically less free. Freedom is a lot more important than security. You can never buy freedom through security.”

While I'll be following the returns with the utmost devotion this Tuesday night, I'm looking forward to a political furlough following. And, no, RECOUNT is not a word in my vocabulary.

But I urge anyone who cares about the future of our democracy to begin by watching Terrorizing Democracy, going to I-Witness Video's Website, and following the events unfolding post-RNC '08. First and foremost, law enforcement should protect the rights and expression of our citizenry, particularly at our nominating conventions. Seeing them disrespect legal observers and journalists, battering down doors and tossing apartments, should not be tolerated in any democracy, much less on our shores. The only politico caught on camera who acquits himself well is Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, who is unafraid to be seen "associating" with anarchists. He calmly advises his young impassioned constituents on what constitutes a fair trial and makes himself accessible going forward.

Equating the RNC and Tiananmen Square seems batshit crazy, yet those atrocities were over the backlash of democratic expression. Four years is a long way away, but as our pundits will soon be remarking, the presidential race of 2012 begins scant moments after this election cycle ends. Likewise, we must confront the events and the troubling policies that are evolving, ostensibly in the interests of preserving crowd control. Terrorizing Dissent, is a first step in diagnosing this disease.

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