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Economic 9/11: The Shrinking of Political Space

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New York, NY -- Arun Gupta stood between the throngs of tourists and the small army of activists squeezing onto the narrow concrete island occupied largely by the 7,000 pound bronze Wall Street Bull and declared. "We're here to say no to the bailout."

Gupta, an editor at the New York Indypendent newspaper whose open letter opposing the Bush Administration's $700 billion bailout is largely credited with inspiring the protests on Wall Street and other cities. "But we're also here because, in times of economic decline like ours, the natural inclination of government is to close down political space," he noted.

Gupta, along with a host of other political observers from across spectrum, believe that the debate about the Bush Administration's bailout plan obfuscates another looming threat: how the bail out behind the economic crisis will further erode free speech, the right to protest, the right to privacy -- repressive measures instituted after 9-11.

At that time many believed that the Bush Administration was using the symbolism of Ground Zero to narrow down political space -- curtailing civil liberties -- in his effort to silence opposition to the Iraq invasion. Today, some like Gupta also believe that the government is preparing for another domestic war, a war on the poor and middle class -- the majority population that are being devastated by economic realities -- by controlling their economic-and political-freedom. The government, for example, as Big Banker Brother, will play the dual roles as financier who may or may not provide loan to its citizens and cop who will quell complaints about the rejections.

Even staunch conservatives with deep roots in and intimate ties to Wall Street are alarmed at the possible political effects of the current economic policy. Former Reagan administration assistant secretary of the US Treasury Paul Craig Roberts, who is also former associate editor of The Wall Street Journal editorial page, sounded an economic and political alarm that echoed in the financial canyons around the Wall Street bull when he wrote a column titled "Has Deregulation Sired Fascism?" "The real issue is whether we the people allow powerful interests to use the economic collapse to create an even more unaccountable Executive Branch," he told me. "History teaches us that its easier for government to give us our money back than it is for them to give us back the freedoms and civil liberties government takes."

And, during a talk show in which she and I appeared on Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appeared to share Roberts' concerns when she said that the fiscal catastrophe upon us was "a tragedy they [the Bush administration] must have known was coming and were very late in coming to Congress on." Pelosi also stated that the Administration also sought "an expansive power for the (Treasury) Secretary that was almost laughable."

The physical, legal and political space had already been shrinking by government actions following 9/11. Public streets severely narrowed by the now ubiquitous steel fencing, decorative bulwarks and defensive walls put up by government and private sector interests; "permanent emergency" laws passed by both Democrats and Republicans, laws like the Patriot Act that criminalize forms of protest that were previously legal and which also unleashed powerful data-mining technology and other unprecedented surveillance powers of local, state and federal government; bi-partisan legislation that also gives the government the power to break into citizens' homes and conduct secret searches and police raids like the made-for-TV beatings and arrests carried out against independent journalists who were covering the Republican Convention.

Gupta and others see the potential for the economic crisis to enable government actions like those denounced shortly after 9-11 by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in a report that stated, "The nation's highest ranking law enforcement officer is using his bully pulpit to shut down dissent and debate."

Located next to the Hudson River and just a brisk walk from the bronze bull and Ground Zero, is the ACLU headquarters, born from government threats to civil rights in times of economic crisis. After the economic unrest seen during and after WWI, the liberal Wilson Administration led several initiatives -- including the Espionage Act of 1917, the Sedition Act of 1918 and other laws -- to enable the rash of warrantless raids, massive surveillance and widespread criminalization of protest. In response, Roger Nash Baldwin, Jeannette Rankin and other New York activists launched the ACLU in 1920.

Baldwin, Rankin and their peers were fighting to maintain political space in the industrial age. Now Gupta and his fellow activists see themselves as doing so in the digital age. "What we're witnessing is an interesting dynamic between the analog and digital worlds in terms of how we combine mobilization with technology," said Gupta. "Email helped spread word of this protest like wildfire. At first I received responses to my open letter from a huge number of activists. But then it kept growing in concentric circles of impact extending to more than a hundred cities. That's a lot of political space that would not have been created otherwise -- and we need to keep it up if we're going to get out of this crisis."

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