Charlotte restricts free speech

Ben Smith reports from Charlotte's on the city's "preparations" for coming protests.

Occupy Charlotte marches against restrictive new laws criminalizing protestOccupy Charlotte marches against restrictive new laws criminalizing protest

LOCAL AUTHORITIES in Charlotte, N.C., have passed a law designed to restrict demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention (DNC), scheduled for September.

The Charlotte City Council voted 10-1 to approve the restrictions, despite protests staged by Occupy activists and opposition by the ACLU, among other organizations. In addition to curbing protest rights, the measure also empowers the city to evict Occupy Charlotte when the law takes effect at the end of January.

Charlotte's bid to restrict free speech rights follows similar ordinances adopted in Chicago in preparation for the NATO and G8 joint summit meeting in May. Like the measures approved in Chicago, the law passed in Charlotte seeks to stifle dissent through a combination of bureaucratic red tape and broadened power for police officers. Also like Chicago, the measure was passed under the administration of a Democratic mayor with overwhelming support by a City Council dominated by Democrats (there is only one Republican on the council).

The key part of the legislation, which takes the form of an amendment to city code, is a provision empowering the city manager--an appointed, not elected, official--to declare an event "of international or national significance" to be an "extraordinary event." The city manager may then specify and limit the times and locations in which demonstrations can occur. The law further empowers the city to establish permit deadlines for protesters wishing to stage marches and demonstrations.

The bill has no sunset clause, meaning that it will stay on the books permanently.

At a January 23 meeting, city attorney Bob Hagemann described some of the specific measures planned for the DNC. According to Hagemann, the city will establish a limited parade route and a designated "free speech zone." Presumably, protesters who demonstrate outside of these confines will be in violation of the ordinance and subject to arrest and legal action.

Worse, the city plans to establish a "speaker's platform," overseen by the city. According to Hagemann, the city will control the process of selecting speakers using a random "lottery" system. Any individual not lucky enough to be chosen by the "content-neutral" lottery process will be denied access to the speakers' podium.

In addition to the specific restrictions for the DNC, the bill also permanently prohibits camping on city property, a policy set to take effect on January 30. This measure effectively establishes a date for the planned police raid on the five-month-old Occupy encampment on the Old City Hall lawn.

Other significant measures in the bill include a passage that authorizes the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department "to establish police lines and barricades." The bill also bans people from carrying backpacks, satchels or coolers if police believe these are being used to hide a weapon. This comes in addition to a number of other banned items, including "noxious substances," helmets, body armor, locks and pepper spray. (Presumably, police are still encouraged to carry these items).

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IN OPPOSITION to the bill, around 50 Occupy activists packed the City Hall chambers. When the council passed the measure, the crowd broke out into chants of "Shame! Shame! Shame!" prompting Mayor Anthony Foxx and several council members to temporarily retreat into another room. Minutes later, the protesters marched out of the meeting and convened in the lobby, still chanting loudly.

The showdown between Occupy and the City Council comes after another bitter conflict at a public forum on the ordinances earlier this month. At a January 9 meeting at City Hall, police arrested Occupy activist Michael Zytkow as he made a speech in opposition to the ordinance. Zytkow was escorted from the podium, brought outside, handcuffed against the building and charged with disorderly conduct--all because he had exceeded the council's two-minute limit for public speeches. In total, Zytkow spoke for just 18 seconds past his allotted time.

Zytkow's arrest provided a lightning rod for Occupy protesters during the subsequent council meeting. Prior to the City Council debate and passage of the ordinance, three of Zytkow's relatives--his mother, his mother-in-law and his wife--delivered impassioned speeches, each drawing prolonged applause.

All three women demanded that Mayor Anthony Foxx issue an apology for Zytkow's arrest. All three asserted that the arrest had more to do with the content of Zytkow's message than any breech of the rules. Debra Shackleford, Zytkow's mother-in-law, pointed out that another person exceeded the two-minute limit while speaking on another subject, but wasn't arrested. "The rule seems to apply only to those that criticize their public officials," Shackleford concluded.

Shackleford also pointed out, "It's ironic that he should be arrested for expressing his views on a law that intends to curb free speech."

In the hopes of dampening public outrage, Foxx and City Council members adopted several amendments, presented as compromises, to the earlier version of the bills.

Officials also came prepared with a set of arguments to justify their proposals--most prominently, that the new ordinances are balanced between enabling free speech while simultaneously protecting public safety. Both council members and police department officials played up fears about the danger posed by "outside radicals" and "troublemakers." In the words of Democrat Michael Barnes, their ordinances are aimed at "people who are not from here who come to make disruptions."

Both the police chief and deputy police chief delivered reports that described, in sensational terms, instances of vandalism and violence perpetrated by black bloc protesters at previous Republican and Democratic conventions. According to Deputy Chief Harold Medlock, for example, one of the reasons for banning backpacks relates to an incident at the 2008 DNC protest in Denver, where protesters went into portable toilets and collected feces in plastic bags, which they stuffed into backpacks and later threw at police.

Members of the City Council echoed the police department's foreboding message about outside agitators. Apparently, the police department held several informational sessions with council members, which the council said reassured any lingering doubts about the ordinance.

What went unstated is the reality of these past demonstrations--that in the vast majority of instances, it was law enforcement officials who used violence to attack peaceful demonstrators at DNC and RNC protests, not the other way around.

As a final point in defending the measure, Foxx declared his confidence that the bill was "neutral in regard to content" since it didn't inhibit speech on any proscribed political or ideological basis. Rather, Foxx implied, the bill just limits certain forms of speech, namely mass street protests.

Again, this argument conveniently ignores a key piece of reality: namely, the connection between the message of the Occupy movement and the method of street protests and occupations. The Occupy movement is based on the understanding that corporations and the elite dominate all aspects of politics through their control over the economy, the media and the political system. As Occupy activists everywhere have realized, the only way for the 99 percent to break through the veil of corporate domination is through protests and direct action.

Tellingly, the actions taken by Foxx and company don't limit the free speech rights of the Democratic or Republican Parties, which has the money and power to make their power heard, beyond the reach of public interference or accountability.

While Charlotte officials work to undermine protest rights, activists in Charlotte and throughout the Southeast are beginning to mobilize in preparation for DNC protests. A week before the City Council vote, the newly formed Coalition to Protest at the DNC staged an opening press conference at the Time Warner Arena in uptown Charlotte--the venue for the first two days of the convention.

To date, the coalition has received the backing of dozens of groups, including human rights advocates, labor organizations, immigrant rights supporters, radical political organizations and a number of different local Occupy movements.

The Charlotte City Council's attempt to curb free speech won't stop this the growth of this movement. Whether city officials realize it or not, no amount of laws are going to stop the Democrats from being met by a massive public shaming in Charlotte this September.