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Michael Ratner: There is a North America-wide strategy to take away the right to mass protest

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay, coming to you from New York City. We’re at Rizzoli Bookstore in New York, which generously provided the space. A year ago in Toronto, more than 1,000 people were arrested while they protested the G-20 that was taking place. Most of them were let go within a few days. And that was part of the problem. No charges were laid, and there was thus no way for people–whose rights the Ontario ombudsman said were violated–could have any recourse. In fact, the ombudsman said the arrests at the Toronto G-20 was the most massive compromise of civil rights in the history of Canada. But is this only happening in Toronto? Or is this in fact part of a North American-wide strategy on how to deal with dissent? And what about the right to mass protest right across the continent? Now joining us to talk about all of this is Michael Ratner. He’s the president of the Center for Constitutional Rights. He’s also the co-author of a new book, Hell No: Your Right to Dissent in 21st-Century America, which he did together with Margaret Ratner Kunstler. Thanks for joining us. MICHAEL RATNER, CENTER FOR CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS: Good to be with you, Paul. JAY: So, first of all, talk a bit about what inspired you to produce the book? RATNER: Since I’d been a young activist, protest has been a key part of my life and a key part of how we actually change what’s going on in the United States and across the world, whether from Vietnam to Central America, to the beginnings of the war with Iraq, where we really had millions of people in the street all over the world. So to me, protest is really a fundamental underpinning of how we make progressive social change in the world. And, of course, we saw recent examples in Egypt in Tahrir Square. We saw a recent effort at that in Madison, Wisconsin, where they were protesting the cutbacks on workers. So it just is the main method, really, that people have, which is, really, acting with their feet in an organized way out in the streets. JAY: It was interesting what happened in Toronto, because being connected with the G-20–and the G-20 was a very important point in terms of this consensus amongst governments to pursue austerity measures once they had completed a certain amount of stimulus during the recession. And they come to this deal that they’re going to halve the deficits by 2013 and have a major cut in debt-to-GDP ratio by 2016. So the austerity measures they agreed to–there was a demonstration right outside that building of what to do with mass protest in opposition to it. And, of course, we’ve seen what mass protests in Europe have done. They really are shaking the political debate. But here they seem to have a strategy to suppress it. So to what extent do you think this is–actually really is a broader strategy than just one event in Toronto? RATNER: No, I think it’s a very broad strategy, and I can articulate some of that across the United States in particular. One interesting thing you said is in Canada was the G-20 and austerity. And if you look at a number of these protests, yes, some are about the Iraq war, some are about other things, but the massive big ones are about economics and the G-20, the G-8, the WTO, the World Trade Organization. Those are where you’re getting hundreds of thousands of people sometimes in the streets. That’s Madison, Wisconsin [snip] about the austerity that was going to be imposed on the workers in Wisconsin. The WTO in Seattle was, again, about the WTO making up these trade agreements that were going to really impoverish people. The G-20 in Florida in 2000, in which massive surveillance, massive disruption was done against the demonstrators, was again about austerity. We had a G-8 in Pittsburgh in which, again, massive demonstrations, again, massive intervention. And if we look at the techniques used, you would have to say that there’s a coming together first of a variety of police forces from all over the United States, and conceivably even working with people in Canada. JAY: But we know they did, ’cause we know the deputy chief of the Toronto Police is now or was the former chair of the advisory committee to the FBI College. Now, this is on the Internet, if you want to go look. So there’s clearly a North American, coordinated strategy. The other thing that we also know in the G-20 in Toronto is it wasn’t just the RCMP who ran the show, but there was a big role of military intelligence. And we also know how close the Canadian military intelligence is to American military intelligence. So there’s a lot of cross-border [crosstalk] RATNER: You know, we could write the book the same way. I mean, that’s–every one of the demonstrations you look at in the United States, the big ones, are all the same–military intelligence, helicopters from this unit of the military, you know, FBI, local police, all working in an integrated form. And it’s not like it just happens on the day of the demonstration. And one of the things we point out in Hell No, in the book, is that this stuff starts by the police and the military months–if not years–before these demonstrations. It includes starting to infiltrate all of the organizations or many of the key organizations who are organizing the demonstrations, even if they’re completely peaceful organizations, or even if they’re just slightly civil disobedient organizations, which I consider to be an utterly legitimate form of protest. So they infiltrate people into those groups. They have no right to infiltrate those people into those groups. These are protected groups, at least in the United States First Amendment, presumably similar kinds of protective laws in Canada. They infiltrate those people, they surveil them physically, they do variety of tactics against groups. JAY: There’s pretty good evidence that some of the infiltration that took place of some of the anarchist groups preparing for the Toronto event, that one–at least one, if not more, were actually some of the strongest advocates for breaking windows and some of the more kind of exuberant forms of civil disobedience. RATNER: Not unexpected. We call them agents provocateurs. That’s what they do. They’ve done that for generations in this country, and are doing it again, certainly, as protest gets more and more massive, particularly around austerity. Sure, we’ve seen, as I said, protests around the war and other kinds of depredations of rights. But the austerity stuff is bringing out masses of people that aren’t necessarily used to going to demonstrations. It’s bringing out union people, I mean, workers, immigrants, lots of people who are really being just cut out of any kind of economic rights in the country. So they begin by infiltrating. They then demonize the groups. So in the United States we’ve had purely pacifist groups–out of Pittsburgh we had the groups, the antiwar groups, the Quaker groups–they were investigated under terrorist designations. So they start terrorism. And once they use the word terrorism, they bring in all kinds of other masses of surveillance. So they demonize the groups, and they do it in the newspapers. Then they all demonize them and they say it’s going to be like Seattle. And Seattle is the WTO demonstrations, in which they falsely claimed in the newspapers after the demonstrations that they threw Molotov cocktails and did all kinds of violence. In fact, none of that happened at Seattle. But they now use what they call the Seattle method of policing once they get into the demonstrations. So at least in this country, they put people in pens to demonstrate. You can’t have any mass group anymore. They deny permits and make you go to a certain place. So when we had the demonstrations against the war in Iraq, we went to–we wanted to demonstrate in front of the United Nations on 1st Avenue. We were prohibited from a demonstration in front of the United Nations, had to be taken away, put in pens. Once they have the people in pens or demonstrating, then they do, like they did in Canada, mass arrests. At the Republican National convention in 2004 in New York, downtown there were 400 people beginning a demonstration. They took nets, literally nets, and they covered the entire group with nets, including people pushing their baby carriages, people just strolling by. They arrested 400 people in one mass arrest who had done nothing wrong. I mean, nothing. They were demonstrating. And a lot of the people were just standing by the side. Where did they put them? They put them in what we called Guantanamo on the Hudson, a big bus warehouse with oil and environmental junk all over it. And did they bring them to court in one day? No. They took 3 to 4 days. We had to file writs of habeas corpus to try and get them out. And they did that purposely, so that those people wouldn’t rejoin the demonstration. I could give you a dozen examples like that, a dozen examples where they all cooperate. And what we really talk about in the book is how this has gained since 9/11 in particular on the excuse that terrorism is going to be involved in some way in these demonstrations. They even say, well, terrorists might attack these demonstrations, and that’s the kind of BS they give. JAY: One of the things they did in Toronto is they used various pieces of legislation. The most onerous one was something called the Public Works Protection Act, which the Ontario ombudsman called a form of martial law, which allowed them to start asking people to produce identification, to be searched without any probable cause. But they also used something called unlawful assembly, which they just declare, even if there’s no violence going on, the crazy piece of legislation, which I don’t think you have in the United States, called breach of the Queen’s peace. But all–the point of all this is that they arrest a lot of people, and then most of them they just let go after the demonstration’s over. So there’s actually very difficult to have any comeback or accountability. Even though you’ve lost the right to protest, you didn’t get charged, so there’s no court case. And then you’re into some kind of lawsuit, which is very difficult to [incompr.] RATNER: Well, we did–you know, back in the Vietnam War days we did a big one for the May Day demonstrations in Washington. They arrested thousands of people–completely innocent. Eventually we recovered millions of dollars, but it’s 20 years later. The May Day demonstrators got as much as $10,000 each. They were in jail for a number of days. It can be done, but does it really have a big effect? And the real effect, if you look at it–I was in law school during those days. The real effect, if I’m a young law student, am I going to go out on a demonstration and get myself arrested when I have to go through the bar and all the character committees and all these committees to get through? Am I going to want even the notice of an arrest on my record? And what–we use the word–in the US, we call it it chills your rights, because it basically is sending a message to the next demonstration, you come out there, you’re not going home tonight, you’d better bring your toothbrush. And that’s a bad message for peaceful demonstrators, really bad message, and it’s a way of undercutting mass protest, because as I said when I began, what they’re afraid of most, I think, in this economic downturn, the austerity measures, is mass protest, which we started to see in Madison, Wisconsin, in the United States, which we’re starting to see in Canada, which we certainly have seen across Europe. I remember when they were happening in Europe over the years. I kept saying, when are we going to start having this? And, of course, now that austerity is kicking in in the United States, we’re seeing it happen here as well. JAY: Thanks for joining us. RATNER: Thanks for having me, Paul. JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network. And we’re again coming from Rizzoli Bookstore in New York City. And thanks again for watching The Real News Network.

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Michael Ratner is President Emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) in New York and Chair of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights in Berlin. He is currently a legal adviser to Wikileaks and Julian Assange. He and CCR brought the first case challenging the Guantanamo detentions and continue in their efforts to close Guantanamo. He taught at Yale Law School, and Columbia Law School, and was President of the National Lawyers Guild. His current books include Hell No: Your Right to Dissent in the Twenty-First Century America, and Who Killed Che? How the CIA Got Away With Murder.

NOTE: Mr. Ratner speaks on his own behalf and not for any organization with which he is affiliated.