The people’s power and the right to peaceably assemble

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“Militarized police responses,” writes Emmanuel Hiram Arnaud, “are now a staple of local government’s response to the body politic’s exercise” of its fundamental right – enshrined in the First Amendment – “to peaceably assemble.” Fortified with such “military-style equipment” as “riot and camouflage gear,” semi-automatic weapons, armored vehicles, and tear gas, the police – in places as disparate as Ferguson, Missouri and the outskirts of Bismarck, North Dakota – now routinely transform into war zones places where women and men have peaceably assembled. In the process, they transform the women and men who have gathered into enemies whose rights the state is not bound to respect.

While much has been said about the challenge militarized police pose to our freedom of speech, “there has been little public discussion,” as Arnaud notes, on how law enforcement’s “increasingly violent response to acts of protest may encroach on the protective intention of the right to peaceably assemble.”

As a consequence, we have generally failed to use these violent police encounters as an opportunity not only to defend our First Amendment right; but also to explicitly affirm public space as the people’s space – as a place where we freely exchange ideas, organize, invigorate our democracy, demonstrate that we can and must challenge power, prefigure alternatives to what is often blindly accepted as “just the way things are,” and openly check those who would make of democracy a thing that benefits only the few. It is where we do democracy, in fact, where we teach one another what it means to be a free people. And it is where we demonstrate what the Founders so clearly understood: that the ability to peaceably assemble – in public and in private – is freedom itself.

The ways that we collectively transform public space when we peaceably assemble, the ways we make it a source of democratic power, is precisely what is so threatening to government and, indeed, to corporate interests. In other words, what we do as a matter of right “out there” in the open, while the whole world watches, is the reason the right to peaceably assemble is, as Maria Nassali writes, “one of the most restricted rights” worldwide (increasingly, national governments – including our own – have been “clamping down on independent civil society spaces,” often “under the guise of,” for example, “combating terrorism”).

When the police show up at our protests, then, with all the violence of their military hardware, they both usurp our right to peaceably assemble and banish us to the private sphere where we are to consider our grievances to be merely private, individual concerns. Police killings and fossil fuel pipelines? Those are only personal worries that require individual solutions. Thus, smile and say “hello” to a police officer. Pray for the Sioux. Don’t drive; walk!

When these militarized police show up, they also seize and, in the process, attempt to redefine public space as the domain solely of state and corporate power. In fact, they become the means by which our local, state, and national governments subtly and not-so-subtly mark mass mobilizations (like what we are seeing at the North Dakota pipeline site) as criminal trespasses, or more nefariously, as outright enemy invasions of government and business territory.

But assemble we must, for “when people hold assembly, they shift the power to the people,” declares Article 20 Network, a New York-based organization that I encourage you to support because it does the immensely important work of defending and advancing “the human right of Freedom of Assembly worldwide” (I am proud to say that I serve as Article 20 Network’s volunteer Nonviolence Advisor).

Given that shift, we need to be talking a lot more about the power of our assembly, and to covet the right to peaceably assemble just as passionately as we covet that other First Amendment right – you know, the one we are so willing to discuss ad nauseam (freedom of speech) and that is itself under siege every time the local army of police invade our peaceably assembled actions and events. After all, when the police chase us away with their machine guns and tear gas and armored vehicles and pepper spray, all that remains is silence.

 

Want to learn more about the Freedom of Assembly and Article 20 Network? Go to http://a20n.org/. You can sign up for alerts, explore Freedom of Assembly organizing and activist resources, and support A20N with your donation.

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