Many forms of Occupy protests subjected to new bill making protests illegal
A bill passed last week in the US House of Representatives and the Senate would make it a felony to participate in many forms of protest associated with the Occupy Wall Street protests of last year. Several commentators have dubbed it the “anti-Occupy” law, but its implications are far broader.
The bill — H.R. 347, or the “Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011”—was passed by unanimous consent in the Senate. Only Ron Paul and two other Republicans voted against the bill in the House of Representatives (the bill passed 388-3). Not a single Democratic politician voted against the bill.
The virtually unanimous passage of H.R. 347 exposes the fact that, despite all their posturing, the Democrats and the Republicans stand shoulder to shoulder with the corporate and financial oligarchy that they work for.
One central provision of H.R. 347 would make it a criminal offense to “enter or remain in” an area designated as “restricted.”
The bill defines the areas that qualify as “restricted”, purposely in extremely vague, ambiguous and broad terms. For one thing, it replaces language prohibiting “willfully and knowingly” entering a “restricted area” with language prohibiting merely “willfully” entering a “restricted area.” This seemingly minor change dramatically increases the reach of the law. Another example, restricted areas can include “a building or grounds where the President or other person protected by the Secret Service is or will be temporarily visiting” and “a building or grounds so restricted in conjunction with an event designated as a special event of national significance.”
Even more onerous is the provision regarding events of “national significance.” What circumstances constitute events of “national significance” is left to the arbitrary and capricious discretion of the Department of Homeland Security. The occasion for virtually any large protest could be designated by the Department of Homeland Security as an event of “national significance”.
Looking forward one can see why the bill is being bandied about at this political juncture: included among such events would be the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, which have been classified as National Special Security Events (NSSE), thanks to a category created under the Clinton administration. These conventions have been the occasion for protests that have been subjected to ever increasing militarization and police repression. Under H.R. 347, future protests at such events could now be criminalized.
The standard punishment under the new law is a fine and up to one year in prison. If a weapon or serious physical injury (weapon is not defined) is involved, the penalty may be increased to up to ten years.
Also criminalized by the bill is conduct “that impedes or disrupts the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions” and “obstructs or impedes ingress or egress to or from any restricted building or grounds.” These provisions threaten to criminalize a broad range of protest activities that were previously perfectly legal.
There is historical precedence for such measures. Under the ancien regime in France, steps were taken to ensure that the “unwashed masses” were kept out of sight whenever a carriage containing an important aristocrat or church official was passing through. Similarly, H.R. 347 creates for the US president and other top officials a protest-free bubble or “no-free-speech zone” that follows them wherever they go, making sure the discontented hoi poloi is contained and out of sight.
The Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act is plainly in violation of the First Amendment to the US Constitution, but don’t tell that to the current corporatists on the Supreme Court.
H.R. 347 comes directly on the heels of the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which was signed by President Obama into law on December 31, 2011. The NDAA gives the president the power to order the incarceration of any person—including a US citizen—anywhere in the world without charge or trial.
An earlier version of the bill would have made it a felony just to “conspire” to engage in any of the conduct described above. The bill now awaits President Obama’s signature before it becomes the law of the land.
What lies behind the unprecedented attack on the US Constitution and Bill of Rights is a growing and unsettling awareness on behalf of the ruling class in this country that the protests that took place around the world against social inequality in 2011 will be back and in more powerful forms, especially as ‘austerity measures’ make the objective and subjective conditions of life more and more miserable for working people.