Not Getting Arrested at a Political Convention Just Got a Lot Tougher

Protesters and reporters will need to stay on the right side of crafty new laws.

A protester is arrested after a march through the streets of New York, the site of the Republican National Convention, while looking for a Starbucks coffee shop, August 28, 2004. (Photo: Chip East/Reuters)

Aug 8, 2012· 2 MIN READ
Matt Fleischer is a TakePart contributor who was awarded a Fund for Investigative Journalism grant for his series “Dangerous Jails.”

At the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City, more than 1,800 protesters were kettled and arrested by NYPD—too many to hold in jail. Instead, hordes of people—often battered and bleeding from their interactions with police—were brought to a filthy, oil-stained warehouse on the West Side pier and left for prolonged periods of time, with no access to food, water or bathroom facilities.

H.R. 347 makes it a federal crime to disturb certain events of national or international significance—such as a political convention.

Eight years later, New York City is facing an armada of lawsuits for this treatment of protesters. But if you plan on exercising your Constitutionally guaranteed right of free assembly at one of the upcoming national political conventions in Tampa or Charlotte, and think New York’s legal woes stemming from 2004 will soften the police stance against protesters in these cities, you’d be dangerously wrong.

Since the New York Republican convention, municipalities and even the Federal government, have been passing legislation to essentially legalize the activities that the NYPD is being sued for today.

MORE: Military Internment in America; Dont Let It Happen

In March, the Federal government passed H.R. 347, also known as “The Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011.” Colloquially, the new law is generally referred to as the “anti-Occupy bill.”

Like many of the more draconian bills in recent memory, the true nature of the law is masked by its creepy Orwellian title. Let’s just say, this “grounds improvement” act has nothing to do with gardening.

H.R. 347 makes it a federal crime to disturb certain events of national or international significance—such as a political convention.

Here’s the relevant subsection of the bill:

‘‘§1752. Restricted building or grounds

‘‘(a) Whoever—

‘‘(1) knowingly enters or remains in any restricted building

or grounds without lawful authority to do so;

‘‘(2) knowingly, and with intent to impede or disrupt the

orderly conduct of Government business or official functions,

engages in disorderly or disruptive conduct in, or within such

proximity to, any restricted building or grounds when, or so

that, such conduct, in fact, impedes or disrupts the orderly

conduct of Government business or official functions;

‘‘(3) knowingly, and with the intent to impede or disrupt

the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions,

obstructs or impedes ingress or egress to or from any restricted

building or grounds; or

‘‘(4) knowingly engages in any act of physical violence

against any person or property in any restricted building or

grounds; or attempts or conspires to do so, shall be punished as provided

in subsection (b).

Violate this new law, and you could face up to 10 years in prison.

How this law will be enforced against protesters (and reporters) is anyone’s guess. The threat of serious prison time lingers, however, for anyone who plans on expressing their First Amendment rights too vigorously in Charlotte or Tampa during the Democratic and Republican political conventions.

For protesters looking to express themselves without the threat of arrest, the key is figuring out which zones throughout the city have been designated part of a National Special Security event, says Chris Brook, legal director of the ACLU’s North Carolina chapter.

“The breadth of these zones hasn’t been established yet,” says Brook. “I don’t think it would be constitutional to declare the entire downtown Charlotte area a security zone.”

Suffice it to say, you can expect that any areas that delegates pass through or where they congregate will be designated federally restricted grounds.

H.R. 347 isn’t the only concern for protesters. The Charlotte city government recently passed an “extraordinary event” ordinance in advance of the Democratic convention. The new ordinance forbids the carrying of backpacks, coolers, even helmets if those objects are in pursuit of concealing weapons or disturbing the peace.

“How does a police officer divine whether the helmet is because you rode a bike to work today?” asks Brook. “We feel the ordinance invites standardless searches.”

The constitutionality of the ordinance could one day come into question. For now, it’s on the books.

Protesters will face extraordinary danger of protracted prison sentences should they defy the ban on “disturbing” National Security Event zones. Perhaps even worse, these conventions could be paving the way for a style of policing that abandons probable cause as a pretext for police searches.

At convention time, when America is supposed to be exercising its democracy as an example to the rest of the world, U.S. lawmakers are seizing the opportunity to strangle longstanding constitutional freedoms.

Are you more or less afraid of exercising your Constitutional right of free assembly after reading this post? Talk about it in COMMENTS.