Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Protest Postscript

As a follow-up to recent posts about the protests surrounding last week's visit to Grand Junction by Gov. Palin, as well as the resulting fallout, there have been a couple of national-level stories that have some bearing on protests and protesters in general that should have all citizens concerned.

The ACLU Blog reported last week that the US Army has recently stationed an active-duty military unit within the United States, for the purpose of response to emergent needs within US borders. This unit, called the "Consequence Management Response Force" or CCMRF, is specifically charged with the following:
"...to provide support for civilian law-enforcement branches like local police and rescue personnel: it may be called upon in situations involving civil unrest, crowd control, or catastrophes like chemical, biological, or nuclear attack, and it will be trained in skills like search and rescue and crowd control."
The concern among civil libertarians is not only this unit's placement on American soil so close to a hotly contested election, but also the gradual erosion of the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 that this action contributes to. This act largely prohibits the use of active duty military for the purpose of civilian law enforcement, except where authorized by the Constitution or by Congress.

The ACLU has made an FOIA request to several federal departments asking for an explanation for this deployment. This gives one pause as to the potential for citizens engaged in lawful protest to be monitored by military personnel, let alone how those personnel would deal with unlawful and/or dangerous displays such as the one here a week ago.

Speaking of 'monitoring', the Maryland State Police is in a bit of hot water over the surveillance of several members of anti-war, anti-death penalty, and now environmental groups, and the entering of those members into a federal anti-terrorist database. The Attorney General there has disavowed the surveillance as 'wrong', and the 53 targets of this activity are pushing for access to the information gathered.

This is interesting on a few fronts, especially given the Free Press reporting on the motorcade disturbance, which included the following:
"Grand Junction Police Officer Colin Daugherty stood in the median in front of Stocker Stadium, snapping photos of various protesters. 'There was no directive or anything like that issued,' Daugherty said of GJPD’s photography activity Monday afternoon at Palin’s rally. 'Just some counter surveillance, in case something happens.'”
This is a little too close for comfort to the reported quote from the former head of the Maryland State Police, while trying to defend the actions of his troopers conducting surveillance, and even infiltrating, groups with no history of violence or other criminal activity:
"These organizations may be extremely well-meaning," Hutchins said. "But the fact of the matter is there are times when fringe people try to tag on to legitimate advocacy groups. ... Volatile demonstrations can erupt quickly and can cause harm to demonstrators and to law enforcement."
Well, "fringe people" may be annoying to some, but so long as they are not committing crimes they have the same rights as any other law-abiding citizen. Period.

I would hate to see a class organization like the GJPD get embroiled in an investigation surrounding surveillance and intelligence gathering involving local protest groups, especially in the wake of the Denver Police Spy Files controversy from several years ago, and the allegations made by some of the protesters cited for last week's misadventure.

There are concerns being expressed on several fronts regarding the potentially chilling effects of "precautionary" deployments of police to Election Day activities or polling places. I believe that the threat of some form of civil unrest is real, that some form of protest is inevitable. As a result, the tough job of law enforcement will likely be made even harder.

I would hope that those involved in protesting their perceived injustices do so within the boundaries established for safe and responsible expression, and that those charged with keeping the peace do just that.

Have a good week.

No comments: