In a major new report, the International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations details a global crackdown on peaceful protests through excessive police force and the criminalization of dissent. The report, “Take Back the Streets: Repression and Criminalization of Protest Around the World,” warns of a growing tendency to perceive individuals exercising a fundamental democratic right — the right to protest — as a threat requiring a forceful government response. The case studies detailed in this report show how governments have reacted to peaceful protests in the United States, Israel, Canada, Argentina, Egypt, Hungary, Kenya, South Africa and Britain. The report’s name comes from a police report filed in June 2010 when hundreds of thousands of Canadians took to the streets of Toronto to nonviolently protest the G-20 summit. A senior Toronto police commander responded to the protests by issuing an order to “take back the streets.” Within a span of 36 hours, more than 1,000 people — peaceful protesters, journalists, human rights monitors and downtown residents — were arrested and placed in detention. We are joined by three guests: the report’s co-editor, Abby Deshman, a lawyer and program director with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association; Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union; and Hossam Bahgat, an Egyptian human rights activist and the founder and executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
Juan González: We turn now to a major new report detailing the global crackdown on peaceful protests, both through excessive police force and the criminalization of dissent. The report is called “Take Back the Streets: Repression and Criminalization of Protest Around the World.” It was put out by the International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations. The name of the report, “Take Back the Streets,” comes from a police report filed in June 2010, when hundreds of thousands of Canadians took to the streets of Toronto to nonviolently protest the G-20 summit. A senior Toronto police commander responded to the protests by issuing an order to, quote, “take back the streets.” Within a span of 36 hours, over a thousand people—peaceful protesters, journalists, human rights monitors and downtown residents—were arrested and placed in detention.
Amy Goodman: According to the report, what happened in Canada is emblematic of government conduct in the face of protest around the world: the tendency to perceive individuals exercising a fundamental democratic right—the right to protest—as a threat requiring a forceful government response. The case studies detailed in this report show how governments have reacted to peaceful protests in the United States, in Israel, Canada, Argentina, Egypt, Hungary, Kenya, South Africa and Britain.
For more, we’re joined by co-editor of the report, Abby Deshman, a lawyer and program director with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. We’re also joined by Anthony Romero. He is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, author of the book In Defense of Our America: The Fight for Civil Liberties in the Age of Terror. And still with us, Hossam Bahgat—he is the founder and executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
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We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Abby, talk about the report.
Abby Deshman: Sure. This is a collaboration between multiple domestic human rights and civil liberties organizations, that we’ve really come together to group our domestic work, group our national work and identify trends in how we feel the governments are responding to democratic dissent and protest in the streets. And, you know, gathering together this number of practitioners to really provide practitioners’ notes shows that there are very disturbing trends. People are taking to the streets across the world, and governments are responding with excessive use of force, criminalization and repression.
Juan González: Well, when you say “disturbing trends,” governments have never looked kindly on dissent within their borders or by their own citizens. What do you see as new about what is occurring now? Because I remember years back when we at Democracy Now! covered the Seattle World Trade Organization protests live, there clearly were some new tactics by both the nonviolent protesters as well as the government response.
Abby Deshman: Well, partly what’s new—I mean, at least for me; I’m young in this game—but partly what’s new is massive uprising in the streets. I think we are seeing, in the past three, five years, record numbers of people, in recent memory, taking to the streets. And we are seeing new police tactics—the numbers of arrests, the massive, hundreds of people rounded up at a time. There are new policing weapons: long-range acoustic devices, sonic cannon, excessive amounts of tear gas being used in Egypt. These are trends that are currently surfacing in multiple countries.
Amy Goodman: Anthony Romero, talk about the United States.
Anthony Romero: Well, it’s important to put the United States in the global context. And normally when we think about protest and freedom of speech, we think that’s been a right that’s been well established and well respected. And yet, you point out the difficulties we’ve seen with the WTO protesters, the protesters with the Occupy movement and, in particular, this case study that we highlight in Puerto Rico, a place where most Americans don’t think of Puerto Rico as part of the United States, but it is. The Constitution applies. Over four—close to four million American citizens live there. And yet, you have the second-largest police department in the nation, only second to New York City Police Department, and the massive levels of repression and shutdown of—of arrests, of tear-gassing, of beating of students, of labor leaders, the level of impunity that lasted for years, until the ACLU filed a report, lobbied our Justice Department, filed a lawsuit, and then the Justice Department stepped in, only recently, to try to put the Puerto Rico Police Department under better control of rule of law.
Juan González: And this whole tactic of picking people up en masse and then holding them, supposedly while protests continue, basically pulling them out without any real charges just to get them off the streets?
Anthony Romero: We saw that New York, right? I mean, that’s how they—that’s how they dealt with many of the protests here in New York, especially after the conventions—during the conventions, where they corralled record numbers of people, arrested them in record time, in ways that were just astonishing, held them often incommunicado for 24, 36, 48 hours—a form of preventive detention, if you will.
And I think one of the things we have to bear in mind is like, look, our government is shut down. Our government is not working. People are frustrated. People may take to the streets as an important part of demonstrating their unrest, their unhappiness with our government. And so, how we protect the rights of individuals to protest and to dissent is critically important, especially in our democracy, that’s so fundamentally broken down and at loggerheads at the moment. The people—it’s the government of the people, by the people and for the people. And when the government doesn’t respond to the people, the people have to take the government back.
Juan González: But to follow up on this, because what the police departments do is they don’t mind having to deal with lawsuits later on. You know, years later they end up paying these settlements to protesters who had their civil liberties violated, but at that moment they’re able to effectively shut down the dissent. So, I’m wondering how can you, as a civil liberties lawyer, find—what ways can the courts be utilized to prevent these kinds of occurrences from repeating themselves over and over again?
Anthony Romero: I think part of it, you have to—even in cases where they infringe on civil liberties and freedom of speech and expression, you have to sue, to use that as a deterrent for further police departments, to shame them, to cost taxpayers money. We have to work with police departments, those that are open to it, to hear what their concerns are for public safety. They have real concerns around public safety; they can be addressed.
We also have to make sure that we don’t allow the excessive use of less lethal force. I mean, one of the things we’ve seen in the reports on Puerto Rico, as much in Egypt and Canada and Argentina, has been the increased use of police of certain weapons, of certain tactics, which they say is less lethal, but they end up in deaths. We have deaths in the arrests in Puerto Rico. We have deaths in Argentina. We certainly have deaths in places like Egypt. And so we have to make sure that we hold the police accountable for those—for those actions.
Amy Goodman: And then the issue of surveillance, like our last headline today—
Anthony Romero: Yeah.
Amy Goodman: —this undercover officer in the infamous West Side Highway videotape of the motorcycle gang and the guy with the SUV, that one of these officers, it turns out, was—one of these motorcycle riders was an officer, undercover, and he was undercover in Occupy Wall Street, as well—
Anthony Romero: Yeah.
Amy Goodman: —picked up at Grand Central.
Anthony Romero: When you look at the fact that it’s not just what they do at the protest itself, but prior to the protests the surveillance, prior to the protests the infiltration. We have police departments who brazenly brag about sending in undercover cops to pretend they’re part of the protest movements as a way to derail them or to shape them in the ways they want. All of this, in the context after 9/11, where any activity that disagrees with the government is—often vehemently, is seen as potential terrorist activity or a potential terrorist plot, the powers of the government to use of surveillance, infiltration, the police tactics, they all have to be seen as one part of an effort to shut down and to dispel dissent. We see it. We see the fact that there’s a quell on public dissent. Muslims are less likely to express themselves now. We hear that from our clients. We hear that from our—some of the litigation we bring. And so, it’s a very pernicious part that’s very, very real and often not uncovered until we put out reports like this.
Juan González: And, Abby, the Canadian example of the G-20 summit, what most surprised you in terms of as you were unearthing what happened there and the civil liberties violations?
Abby Deshman: Well, actually, how high the police orders went. You know, we thought that this was a coordinated response. We saw that there was consistency, a really defined point in time when the policing turned during the G-20. We then had confirmation that there were orders all the way from the top, that these were not random acts by individual commanders panicking under situations, that these really were decisions that were taken by very senior police leaders to violate not only the rights of citizens, but their own policies and procedures about how to deal with protests, and really that they were taking notes from an international scene where this had happened before. We had not seen this technique in Canada. It was clear that it had happened at previous G-20 summits, and they were importing these policies.
Amy Goodman: Hossam Bahgat, we were just talking about the level of repression in Egypt, but fit this into this global context.
Hossam Bahgat: Yes. While Egypt might be an extreme case, of course, because we have sort of crossed the threshold from just the violent repression of protests to mass and deliberate killings, really the trend in Egypt fits with the trend identified by the report in all of these case studies. We see, as Abby and Anthony mentioned, that the mass protests are not, of course, a new phenomenon, but they are taking new shapes. And whether it’s the Arab uprisings, the protests in Turkey and Brazil, the anti-austerity mass protests in Europe, the Occupy movement here, they are going to continue.
And we see the right to protest publicly and the right to dissent as an essential part of democracy. There is an attempt on the other side, by governments, to reduce the democratic rights of individuals to just voting, to being called in once every few years to cast a vote and then be sent home and leave the governance to the people that have been elected. The people refuse. The people see that, in many countries, the democratic institutions—and we’re talking in the United States here, but the democratic institutions around the world are not working and are not necessarily reflecting the wills of the people. And the people are going to continue to take their demands, yes, through channels like the media and civil society and labor unions and others, but they are going to go on the street, and they are going to protest publicly. And states need to know that they have a responsibility not just to protect this right, but to even enable people to express these rights, because the only other alternative—the killings that we’re seeing in Egypt or the killings that even started in Syria as just violence in the face of peaceful protests and turned into civil wars—these are recipes for only pushing the situation into very, very dangerous directions. And the violent response only leads to even violent protests.
Juan González: Yeah, and, Abby, I wanted to ask you—much was made, obviously, in Egypt and during the Arab Spring of the impact of social media and the use of the Internet by dissidents to mobilize, to communicate. In your report, did you dwell into the responses of government officials in terms of how they responded to the change in tactics of the popular movements?
Abby Deshman: Yeah, absolutely. Police do say that they need new tactics because people can mobilize more quickly. Things are going out on Twitter, and then a large crowd forms. Things are very mobile on the ground. But the truth is, in my experience, during the G-20, we knew exactly what was going to happen, because it was on the Internet, it was on social media. The protesters themselves had classified their protests in terms of levels of risk. So I actually am very skeptical of those claims that they need new powers in order to try to police these new forms of protest. We knew exactly what was going to happen during the G-20 protests. They followed that pattern. The police simply weren’t prepared and then violated rights as their reaction.
Amy Goodman: And how should the state deal with violence?
Abby Deshman: Well, the state does need to respond to violence. But I would say the state overresponds to violence, particularly in protests. So, there may be one or two or even 10 or 30 people in a crowd of thousands, tens of thousands, that commit property damage, that commit violent acts. The state often takes that as an authority to abrogate the rights of every single person in that crowd. They need to respond to violence. They need to protect the rights of all the other people in that crowd who are peacefully protesting and exercising their democratic rights. Their role is to facilitate protest, not to find excuses to shut it down.
Amy Goodman: What about the U.S. cutting military aid to Egypt, Hossam? How does that play into what the military government does with the protesters? Does it change?
Hossam Bahgat: I mean, in Egypt, especially after the massacres, of course, our position was that there should be investigations, there should be an independent fact finding, and there should be accountability. And until that takes place and until the government also accepts responsibility for these killings, there should be a suspension of the provision of any arms or tools of repression from any country in the world. We’re not just talking about the U.S. military assistance. And any resumption of the sale of weapons or the provision of weapons or tools of repression to the Egyptian government must be conditioned on accepting the retraining and provision of, you know, new tools for riot control, but that business should not continue just as usual when it comes to Egypt.
Especially when—exactly like Abby said, the problem is now, in all of these demonstrations that we are seeing, in the report, all around the world, there is—there is always a few protesters that are going to use violence. The trend we’re seeing now is that governments use this to dub the entire protest—20,000, 30,000—as non-peaceful or as violent. And that leads to two things: One, the peaceful participants that are not using violence are, again, lumped together with the others and are deprived of their rights as peaceful protesters; and even those that do engage in stone throwing or other violence are robbed of all their other rights, including their right to life, of course. And the states are just using this as an excuse, sometimes through infiltration by provocateurs into these protests, in order to just remove entire protests outside the realm of protection of law.
Juan González: I’d like to get back to Anthony Romero in terms of this whole idea of the Obama administration finally doing something in Egypt to cut off some of the military aid to the—to the coup leaders. How has the Obama administration dealt with the increasing repression by local police on public protesters? Has there been any—any actions by the Justice Department to try to rein this in, or have they basically been supportive?
Anthony Romero: They’ve basically been supportive. I mean, to be clear, the ACLU doesn’t take positions on foreign policy or the U.S. aid to Egypt, but we do look very closely about how our government, federal government, works with state and local governments. And the level of collusion between the federal agents, the FBI, and local police departments has become very troubling, the way they track and the way they monitor and do surveillance on Muslims. So, one of the key cases we have now is in New York City with the New York City Police Department, but it involves the FBI and the federal government. You see it in the immigration context, if you pull the camera back a little further back, where you find the FBI and the DOJ and Department of Homeland Security working with local sheriffs and police.
Amy Goodman: You have a case against Arpaio in Arizona.
Anthony Romero: Oh, it’s exactly that.
Amy Goodman: The sheriff, Joe Arpaio.
Anthony Romero: The sheriff, Arpaio, who resists a federal order from a federal judge to have a monitor and to have any type of accountability. But Arpaio was created by the policies of Janet Napolitano. I mean, Arpaio is not just a one—
Amy Goodman: When she was governor or head of the Department of Homeland Security?
Anthony Romero: Well, I would say more in the Department of Homeland Security, because it’s exactly that type of collusion that she encouraged—the 287(g) programs, the Secure Communities programs, that insisted that federal government officials work with local law enforcement officials. Now, Sheriff Arpaio has gone off the farm, but the fact is that there are too many local police departments that are working with the federal government on things like surveillance, on immigration, on dissent, on protest. And so, I think actually part of the responsibility does come from the federal government.