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Sarah Olson: Marching Against the Freedom Agenda

Marching Against the Freedom Agenda

By Sarah Olson
t r u t h o u t | Report

Tuesday 19 September 2006

United for Peace and Justice is marching past the United Nations today, in an anti-war demonstration timed to coincide with President Bush's address to the UN General Assembly. But had it not been for vigorous determination and willingness to defy officials, the streets might have been a little quieter and somewhat emptier.

Citing "security concerns," the New York City police department denied UFPJ a permit for a march near the United Nations during the General Assembly last Tuesday, September 12th. UFPJ responded with outrage, calling a press conference, polling its member organizations from across the country, and ultimately announcing that they would hold a permitted demonstration and then march past the United Nations anyway.

In a written statement, the national anti-war coalition announced: "Enough is enough. We are marching - marching to demand that the troops come home now, and to assert our right to peaceful protest. Marching without a permit amounts to nonviolent civil disobedience, and those of us who participate in the march on Tuesday will place ourselves at risk of arrest. A risk we are willing to take." In the end, the police department relented, and issued a permit last Friday afternoon.

Leslie Cagan, UFPJ's national coordinator, called the permitted march a victory. "United for Peace and Justice stood up against an attempt to limit our right to peacefully protest the Iraq war - and we won."

Cagan says marchers from around the city are protesting the Bush administration's so-called freedom agenda. "There are new rhetorical flourishes, but it's the same old policy," Cagan said. "It's the same war in Iraq, that the president intends to stay the course. It's the same war on terrorism, and they claim that if they don't stop the war in Baghdad, we will be fighting it on the streets of Brooklyn. It's the same policy of endless and pre-emptive war."

While the demonstration today focuses primarily on the Iraq war, UFPJ also opposes the possibility of additional wars. Cagan says the world has gotten tired of the belligerent and tyrannical policies of the United States government, which believes it can use whatever force it wants, whenever it wants, when it determines there is a problem.

It may be tempting to look at this demonstration as just another small struggle on behalf of the US anti-war movement: a dramatic threat by the New York City police department, calls for civil disobedience, and a last-minute reprieve. But when you look closer at the state of "permitted" dissent around the country, it becomes clear that Constitutionally protected rights to assemble, to protest, to demonstrate, and even to disagree with official opinions are in grave danger.

Just last month, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the administration's critics suffered from "moral and intellectual confusion," and likened those seeking to end the Iraq war to "appeasers" of Adolph Hitler's government in the 1930s. Comments like these leave little room for interpretation or guess work; they are clearly designed to silence dissent and scare citizens into compliance.

In another attempt to prevent disruptive protest, the New York City police department sought to require police permits for a whole host of demonstration-like activities. The proposal would have required a police permit for every sidewalk procession involving 35 or more people, every roadway procession with 20 or more vehicles or bicycles, and every procession of two or more people using a roadway "in a manner that does not comply with all applicable traffic laws, rules, and regulations." While the NYPD tabled this proposal back in August, the New York Civil Liberties Union remains concerned about the possibility that police could try to require permits for lawful bike riding or protest.

And it's not just New York City. Since the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, a number of arcane policies have been employed repeatedly in an apparent effort to discourage dissent in the United States. These include excessive fines and high bails, denial of permits, threat of felony charges for non-violent civil disobedience, unjustified force, and long prison sentences. National security has been trotted out time and time again when a city is faced with powerful protest, and demonstrators of all sorts have been demonized and vilified in the public eye. Further, demonstrations have repeatedly been penned into small "protest zones" sometimes surrounded by wire fencing and often miles away from the relevant target of protest.

In some situations, such as demonstrations outside the United Nations General Assembly, security concerns present logistical difficulties. The question, according to UFPJ's Leslie Cagan, is how does one deal with security considerations. "How do you balance your commitment to security with your commitment to the Constitution?" she asks. It's incumbent on the police department to find a way to deal with these real and legitimate security concerns without trampling on or undermining rights of citizens in New York City to express their opposition to the war in Iraq, or any other issue.

According to Cagan, the Bush administration is yet again using security and the war on terror to silence anti-war sentiments. "The Bush administration has used the horror of September 11th to push forward their agenda. They are using it to legitimize everything: failed foreign policy, the war in Iraq, and a domestic agenda."

Indeed, many say Cagan is not alone in her frustration with the Bush administration's use of September 11th. Aimara Lin is an organizer with the Not In Our Name project. She says she'll be in the streets today because she felt the president's presence in New York City on September 10th was frustrating and disheartening. On that day, protesters were forced into protest zones, sheltering the president from their dissent. "Many people were completely disgusted," Lin says. "I think people feel especially offended, given the fact that he used what happened here to justify everything that he's doing internationally."

Hany Khalil is a communications coordinator with United for Peace and Justice. He urges people to consider participating in the march past the United Nations. He says that after the struggle to obtain a permit, it's important that people join UFPJ in the streets, to affirm their right to democracy and their right to be in the streets.

Leslie Cagan says she looks forward to joining hundreds in the streets. "While the Bush administration lied and pursued pre-emptive war in Iraq, our Constitutional rights are eroding here at home. We had to fight for our right to march today. We will march and rally as we call for an immediate end to the war in Iraq. It is time to bring all the troops home."

For Not In Our Name's Aimara Lin, her decision to protest President Bush at the United Nations General Assembly today is a simple matter of doing what's right. "How could I live here, in these times - when he's going to an international body in this city - and not come out and protest. I feel like every New Yorker should at least leave work for lunch and come out and curse at the president."


Sarah Olson is an independent journalist and radio producer. She can be reached at

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