The new assault on civil liberties

Dec. 2012 Spy

This is a section of the Political Resolution approved at the August 2012 Socialist Action National Convention in Minneapolis.

The past few years have seen a rapid and alarming rise in government attacks on basic civil liberties. Any underestimation of the gravity of this assault would be a serious mistake. It is not our intention here to list all of assaults; it is sufficient to point to a few to make the necessary points that need explication.

Since 9-11, for example, over 100,000 Muslims have been investigated by government agencies. Some 40,000 have been detained, and thousands arrested. Just a handful of these have been convicted of any serious crime and of these most convictions have been as a result of court interpretation of the Constitution or legislation that has stretched definitions beyond recognition. In the name of national security, as in the McCarthy era, basic civil liberties have been subordinated to Constitutionally protected rights to free speech, association, and assembly.

Indefinite detention without charges and recourse to the courts now applies to citizens and non-citizens alike, as was most recently demonstrated the week leading up to the May 20 anti-NATO protests in Chicago, which saw the arrest of a few scores of people who had committed absolutely no illegal acts. This kind of “preventive” arrest and detention of antiwar activists has now become the norm whenever government agencies declare any protest a “national security” event.

In the name of securing convictions against the most innocent of groups, as with the largest Muslim charity, the Holy Land Foundation, five leaders of which were convicted of providing material aid to terrorism, the law has been bent beyond recognition. In this case the material aid was given to a hospital that no one, including the government, charged with having any relation to terrorist groups. But the gift itself was nevertheless ruled illegal on the grounds that had the Holy Land Foundation not given such aid, a terrorist organization would have had to do so!

This case followed that of attorney Lynne Stewart, which resulted in a 10-year sentence for conspiracy to aid and abet terrorism because Lynne had issued an innocent press release on behalf of her client, the “blind sheik” Omar Abdel Rachman.

Every variety of internet spying, FBI spying, drone spying, NYPD spying on Occupy activists, and more are justified in the name of the fake war on terrorism. This time round, however, the “enemy” is a handful of Muslims who resent imperialist mass murder around the world and who resort to isolated terrorist attacks, as opposed to the Cold War era, when the state power of the USSR and its associated deformed workers’ states, along with China, Vietnam, and North Korea, presided over some two billion people. However degenerated and deformed, and however counterrevolutionary, these states nevertheless represented a severe limitation on imperialist prerogatives around the world. Today’s endless U.S./NATO wars of conquest and occupation could not have been conceived of during that era.

The anti-NATO, UNAC-initiated and CANG-8-sponsored demonstration in Chicago on May 20, according to our Chicago comrades, received the most concerted violence baiting than they had seen in that city for their entire lives. Every kind of government police agency—local, state and national—was mobilized in numbers estimated by city officials to be in the neighborhood of 20,000, with police squads mobilized from as far away as San Francisco.

This took place in the face of a nine-month effort on the part of protest organizers to repeatedly counter the unprecedented violence-baiting, with great efforts to secure permits for march routes and rally sites for a peaceful, “family-friendly” mobilization.

Not a day passed in the months preceding May 20 when new restrictions were not announced to discourage public participation. Major streets and expressways were closed, stores were pressured to close, landlords were instructed to allow no one but tenants in their downtown buildings to enter, colleges and universities were asked to shut down, and inspection stations were established at sites for plane, train, and other forms of public transportation.

City officials sought to enact special legislation imposing qualitatively increased fines for any arrested persons. While these new forms of intimidation have been pressed into operation at various “anti-globalization protests in the past, the Chicago preparation appeared to far exceed anything previously experienced. It would not be an exaggeration to postulate that the Chicago preparations were more in accord with mass practice sessions aimed at qualitatively larger working class-led protests in the future than they were for the modest turnout expected on May 20.

Government incursions on civil liberties and democratic rights already described in this resolution, including the deepening attacks on immigrants, the rise in police brutality and murder and near slave labor prison-industrial complex and more add up to something more than a modest change in government policy.

Private companies can, in most states, lease factories in prisons or prisoners to work on the outside. All told, nearly a million prisoners are now making office furniture, working in call centers, fabricating body armor, taking hotel reservations, working in slaughterhouses, or manufacturing textiles, shoes, and clothing, while getting paid somewhere between 93 cents and $4.73 per day.

All previous resolutions in which we discussed increasing government attacks on civil liberties always noted that however severe they are, we cannot conclude that we are heading for a degree of repression akin to fascism, if for no other reason that such monstrous measures are in no way required by a U.S. capitalism that faces little or no resistance from a still passive working class.

Fascism, we correctly observed was that form of capitalist political rule, as compared to bourgeois democracy, where the very existence of an organized and fighting working class was incompatible with the existence of capitalism. In short, fascism is the politico-military rule required by a ruling class whose desperation in the face of the immediate possibility of socialist revolution, gives it no choice.

German bourgeois democracy ceded leadership and power over the economically and politically crisis-ridden state to Hitler when the overt exercise of mass repression, including of the para-military or extra-legal death squad-type, was a necessity. German capitalism preferred the fascist dictatorship of Hitler, despite restrictions on its own prerogatives, than it did to working-class rule and the abolition of capitalist property and wealth entirely.

Of course, we are nowhere near the situation that prevailed in 1933 Germany. Then why, we must ask, the imposition and putting into place of so many and such serious restrictions on all forms of civil and democratic rights? The answer to this question lies in part in capitalism’s realization that there are no immediate if not mid-term solutions to its present crisis other than deepening austerity imposed on workers.

Second, the ruling rich understand full well that workers, consciously or not, do have limits as to what they can endure without fighting back. They understand that such a fightback, to be successful, must consist of a level of unity, mobilization, and leadership that has not existed for almost 100 years, that is, since the 1917 Bolshevik-led Russian Revolution.

Today, capitalism’s best advisers, experienced in the administration of every form of mass repression imaginable, anticipate, perhaps better than we do, a working-class fightback that exceeds in power and scope anything in modern history. They also understand, as we do, that the pace of development of working-class consciousness is not arithmetic—that is, a slow and steady rise—but rather one characterized by sudden great leaps that occur at special moments when everything that seemed impossible yesterday becomes the order of the day today.

A tiny example is the leap into the public eye of the Occupy movement, whose class-divide, 99% versus 1% formulation crystallized a deeply felt sentiment that had been developing for a long period. Undoubtedly, the Occupy movement served to change the national dialogue regarding the cause of the economic crisis from a Tea Party emphasis on big government spending, including racist overtones fostering resentment against recipients of welfare, to a focus on the ruling rich as the cause of the crisis.

Perhaps the best explanation for the present “war on terror” and its associated escalating attack on civil liberties is the ruling-class anticipation of and preparation for the coming fightbacks. This includes putting into place the “legal” justification for arrests of every sort, from socialists to trade unionists, and concerted efforts to arm these repressive forces with the most modern technology and devices, to prepare them for action.

The preparation itself, as with the months of threats of mass arrests and fear-mongering that preceded May 20, undoubtedly had a deterrent effect, making it clear, in advance, to millions that even the democratic right to protest, to peacefully march down the street in a “family-friendly” protest, could come at a costly price. Some 15,000, perhaps, or more, took to the streets on May 20. Had the unprecedented threat of repression and violence emanating from the police been absent, few doubt that the size and scope of the action would have been larger.

On the eve of the Chicago protest an official report was released on the excessive use of police force employed in Toronto a few years ago when some 10,000 took to the streets to protest a G-20 Summit. Some 1100 arrests were recorded, the great majority—the overwhelming majority—innocent bystanders or peaceful demonstrators. Of course, the powers that be are more than willing to pay some modest fines, perhaps a few million dollars, in exchange for the message sent to these and future protestors. “Don’t challenge our system!”

This explanation, of course, is not offered in an absolute manner. There will inevitably be times when the level of outrage supersedes the level of fear, and when government repression serves a effect opposite to what is intended—as when 20,000 mobilized in the streets of Oakland the day following the brutal demolition of the Frank Ogawa Plaza Occupy encampment.

An interesting May 2012 article in Minneapolis’s main daily, the Star Tribune, reported on police department plans to honor in the Washington, D.C.’s national police memorial building, one C. Arthur Lyman, “a leader in the Citizens Alliance, a group of employers that squashed unions in Minneapolis for 30 years.”

“When police called for help in controlling a truckers’ strike in May 1934,” says the Star Tribune, “he signed on as a special deputy. He wound up getting clubbed by strikers in the Warehouse District, and died of a fractured skull.” Our Twin Cities comrade David Jones was fortunate in the Star’s decision to print his rejoinder setting the record straight on Lyman’s role. He explained that the Citizens Alliance goons killed two strikers who fought to make Minneapolis a union town.

Our point here is only to call attention to the fact that in 1934 police authorities believed it was perhaps sufficient to quell a major union strike by calling on a group like the Citizens Alliance, a tiny private group of Twin Cities entrepreneurs dressed in their business and/or sportsmen’s attire, including polo uniforms and high boots in one case, with police-issued clubs, and prepared to take on union members face-to-face.

Today, the repressive apparatus at the disposal of the ruling rich qualitatively exceeds anything imaginable in 1934. We need not review its varied components other than to conclude that we find no better explanation than a conscious effort at the highest levels of ruling-class circles to prepare for a massive working-class offensive, the likes of which the world has rarely experienced.

Photo: Tony Savino / Socialist Action