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Democracy Defeated
The Death of Protest

On Friday I read the following Associated Press dispatch in the Moscow Times: “The head of the Belarussian state security service warned on Thursday that any protesters who took to the streets during elections this Sunday could be charged with terrorism.” The Belarussian security service, incidentally, still goes by its Soviet-era brand: KGB.

The same day in The New York Times, I read the following: “In five internal reports made public yesterday as part of a lawsuit, New York City police commanders candidly discuss how they had successfully used ‘proactive arrests,’ covert surveillance and psychological tactics at political demonstrations in 2002, and recommend that those approaches be employed at future gatherings.” As we know from the 2004 National Republican Convention in Manhattan , those tactics were used to great effect. The New York Police Department, with $76 million to spend and 10,000 shields to use on four days’ work, presumed that every protester was a potential terrorist. It borrowed from the playbook of the Miami police department, where anti-globalism protesters were overwhelmed by police force in 2003. It cuffed activism to side-streets and precinct houses (1,806 people were arrested). It doctored videotape of the arrests, deleting evidence of protesters cooperating with arresting officers. And all along the Republican Party staged its lie-abiding Bush-capades at Madison Square Garden , with Belarussian contempt for the noises of democracy it is preaching to the world.

Compared to the violence of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, placid Manhattan looks, in retrospect, like the real breakdown of civil, democratic society. It’s where protest could be deemed dead and buried, and with it the notion that political freedom is anything more than the right to vent in an echo chamber. The weekend protests on the third anniversary of the Iraq war were more like self-conscious funeral processions: Just 200 people in Manhattan (compared with 100,000 two days before the war started), 17 of whom were arrested. A few hundred in Boston, 7,000 in Chicago, 10,000 in Portland, Ore. (A Port Orange street-corner drew about 50 activists on Sunday.) Those weren’t demonstrations but gatherings of defeat. More people will attend next week’s baseball spring training games than the sum total of weekend protesters across the country.

Yet half of Americans now think the war unjustified, and 60 percent think it’s getting worse. Vietnam was getting better marks in 1968, with more than half of Americans thinking it was still worth the fight. But demonstrations raged in the streets back then. Lyndon Johnson’s approval rating stood at 36 percent in March 1968, exactly where President Bush’s rating stands now, with this difference: Johnson, for all the madness he ramped up in Vietnam, would soon concede defeat by refusing to run again. He retreated to the White House to wait out his term to the daily sound of protesters outside (“Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids will you kill today?”). He could have banished them to distant zones. He didn’t. He’d been a fool to think that “we can turn the Mekong into a Tennessee Valley.” He wasn’t such a fool as to think that he could turn the White House into a Red Square.

Bush has. Nothing illustrates the death of the First Amendment, when it comes to political protest, better than Secret Service demonstration rules routinely enforced wherever the president goes. Supporters are welcome. Protesters are not allowed within a half mile of the president. They’re penned up in “protest zones,” an oxymoron of democracy if there ever was one, or parked behind rows of buses so neither the cameras nor the president can see them. Fugitives who slip out and manage to flash the president with the semblance of an opinion — a shout, a critical T-shirt, a sign, a burst of ribaldry, so well deserved these days — is arrested. This is what we’ve come to. The president shields himself in an echo chamber of his own, acts like a Belarussian thug toward those who’d tell him different, and goes around declaring the spread of freedom.

Bush has lost the war in Iraq . But he’s won it at home. Repression and distortion are accepted methods of presidential conduct. State and local governments are only too happy to adopt the methods when protesters come their way. “It took blood,” the Village Voice reporter Steve Lerner wrote of the violent Democratic National Convention protesters in 1968, “to prove to the prime time viewers that Civil Rights, the right to dissent, the right to assemble, the right to pass freely in the streets, the right to be tried before being clubbed, were all okay as long as you didn’t actually try to use them.” Now it just takes a “protest zone,” though the prime-time viewer is more likely to watch “American Idol” than to care about those dimming murmurs of democracy.


Pierre Tristam is an editorial writer and columnist at the Daytona Beach, Fla., News-Journal, and editor of Candide's Notebooks. Reach him at ptristam@att.net

The photographs, taken during the Republican National Convention in Manhattan in August 2004, are the work of photojournalist and writer Jim Lowney. See more photos here, at Lowney's web page.

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