A number of University students have a firsthand understanding of the more aggressive tactics police departments in major cities have begun employing. Two University students had court dates last week in New York because police arrested them at one such riot. These more aggressive tactics are an inherently unconstitutional means of discouraging political activism and a latent violation of the First Amendment’s right to publically gather to express opinions.
Police have arrested University students at two recent protests. These include the protests at the September 2002 meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in Washington and the anti-war protests that took place in New York last month. The new policing strategies have been pioneered in Washington under Police Chief Charles Ramsey.
Ramsey’s department has been using what is known as the “surround-and-detain” technique to contain protesters. At the Sept. 27 World Bank and IMF protests, police arrested hundreds of people for “failure to obey a police order,” even though an internal investigation states that the police never told the protesters to disperse from a city park. The internal department investigation further reveals that the police intended to surround and then arrest the protesters, never to have them disperse. It is irresponsible for police to arrest people under a false pretext.
In addition to the arbitrary arrests, there have been allegations that police forced the arrested protesters to endure abusive conditions. One University student said that after he was arrested, he spent 33 hours handcuffed on a gymnasium floor. He went on to say that people’s hands turned purple because the flexi-cuffs were on so tightly.
When Democratic D.C. Councilwoman Kathy Patterson raised concerns about police tactics, the mayor’s spokesman responded that she was overreacting. Mayor Anthony Williams himself then said that nurses in town for a conference who the police detained – even though they were not part of the protests – were lying.
There was once a time when the nation’s capital was well regarded for the way that it handled protests, keeping the peace without discouraging individuals from expressing their political opinions and possibly creating a chilling effect discouraging Americans from voicing their opinions. As a result of these latest actions, the city is rightly facing legal retribution for its actions.
The First Amendment right to peaceably assemble is a cornerstone of American democracy. It is every citizen’s right to protest his government’s actions without having to fear government retaliation. It is imperative that any infringement on that right be thoroughly investigated and that those responsible be punished. No government can be permitted to induce fear in its people when they choose to exercise their rights to politically.