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Their fence is an attack on all of us

by ELIZABETH SCHULTE | September 14, 2001 | Pages 8 and 9

D.C. POLICE Chief Charles Ramsey says he needs a nine-foot-high fence and thousands of cops to "keep the peace" when protesters come to Washington to demonstrate against the IMF and World Bank. But that's par for the course today.

The idea that global justice protesters should be treated like criminals has become a familiar theme for authorities from Seattle to Quebec City to Genoa. And for their media mouthpieces.

When 23-year-old protester Carlo Giuliani was gunned down at the G8 protests in Genoa in July, Time magazine called it a message to his fellow protesters: "You reap what you sow." Sickening.

U.S. leaders like to claim that this is the world's greatest "democracy," where every citizen has the "right to protest" if they see injustice. Meanwhile, they're criminalizing protest with barricades and police in the capital of that so-called democracy. But this isn't a new tactic.

The U.S. has a long history of criminalizing protest--from persecuting union militants to jailing opponents of the First World War, from wiretapping Martin Luther King to hounding the Black Panthers. The state bends the rules of what is legal and illegal to meet its needs--and the interests of the ruling class it serves.

So striking workers have the right to set up a picket line in front of their workplace. But if the picket becomes effective--say, by turning away scabs--management can get an injunction to limit the number of picketers. The vast majority of rights that we have today were won because people organized to fight for them--even if that meant breaking unjust laws.

The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s is a perfect example. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white, she became a criminal in the eyes of 1950s Alabama. She was breaking the law. But the law was segregation--a racist law that had to be broken to be abolished.

When Parks' action inspired other African Americans to organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott, they became criminals, too. Police issued traffic tickets and arrested hundreds of Black drivers who organized carpools for bus boycotters.

Then came the mass arrests on charges of "conspiracy against the bus company." But when racist gangs attacked the Black boycotters and bombed their churches, the police did nothing.

This sort of double standard has been repeated throughout history. "The war in Vietnam," historian Howard Zinn wrote in 1969, "is a particularly vivid example of how we cannot depend on the normal processes of 'law and order,' of the election process, of letters to the Times, to stop a series of especially brutal acts against the Vietnamese and against our own sons...The greatest danger for American democracy is not from the protesters. That democracy is too poorly realized for us to consider critics--even rebels--as the chief problem. Its fulfillment requires us all, living in an ossified system which sustains too much killing and too much selfishness, to join the protest."

D.C. officials claim that the fence they're building is for a few "bad" protesters. But they're building it as an attack on all of us.

That's why we have to mobilize the largest numbers possible to protest the real criminals in D.C.--the IMF, the World Bank and the politicians who protect them. We have to start by saying protesting is not a crime!

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