Daring to dissent

G-8 officials want a peaceful summit for everyone, but history indicates otherwise

Rick Malone has great hopes for the G-8 summit in Sea Island. As co-chair of the G-8 Legal Services Committee, he has been working with government officials for months to, as he sees it, strike a balance between security considerations at the summit and the rights of protesters to demonstrate.

Police are being briefed on free-speech issues, as well as how to exercise restraint. Anyone arrested, Malone says, will be nabbed because they were breaking the law, not because of some arbitrary street-sweep.

And if, as Malone hopes, the $25 million spent on security results in not a single arrest or incidence of violence, the summit will be a huge success. It will also be a striking anomaly.

In the past several years, police surveillance of activists prior to protests — and suppression of them during protests — has reached alarming proportions. The examples are numerous: In Washington, D.C., the Partnership for Civil Justice found that city police there had undercover officers infiltrating political organizations, despite there being no allegations of criminal activity. Even more disturbing, amateur videotape at George W. Bush’s inauguration showed a man, who was later identified as an undercover officer, pepper-spraying a group of demonstrators. The incident led many to believe that police were using agents provocateur to stir up crowds and incite conflict.

In Miami last November, the idea of agents provocateur gained added currency when intelligence estimates before the FTAA indicated that as many as 80,000 protesters would swarm the Florida city, and that they would try to overrun government buildings. As one class-action lawsuit against authorities in Miami puts it, the “so-called ‘intelligence’ was so incorrect that it was, most likely, the deliberate work of agents provocateur to rationalize the use of force employed to limit the protest.”

As it turned out, the protesters in Miami numbered no more than several thousand — many of them retirees and union workers from places like Michigan and Minnesota. Police tactics there have spawned several lawsuits and, despite almost 300 arrests, have led to not one conviction.

Malone, who besides being the co-chair of the G-8 Legal Services Committee is also executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, said he has heard nothing about any plans to put agents provocateur amid protesters in Brunswick and Savannah. “I don’t understand the logic of that. Why would police provoke the protesters to violence?”

It is almost a certainty, though, that police are monitoring the plans and attending the open meetings of demonstrators gearing up for G-8. After all, due to the nature of the summit, the Secret Service has ultimate command over security.

In Savannah, police have visited the employers of activists helping to organize T.O.E.S. — “The Other Economic Summit” — which is a series of academic panels meant to address many of the issues that G-8 leaders do not. Police also have dropped by the Progressive Recreation Center, a facility outside Savannah owned by employees of International Paper, which originally planned to host T.O.E.S. Charles Nelson, who books the hall, says the local police chief paid a visit. “I don’t think they mean to violate your rights, but sometimes they get a little over-anxious,” Nelson said.

One of those organizers whose employer was visited by police understands that authorities can’t be too careful with eight world leaders converging on coastal Georgia in a few weeks. “I don’t consider it threatening,” Margy Betz said. Others, however, aren’t as charitable. Robert Randall, a Brunswick resident who’s been trying for months to organize a “Fair World Fair” that would serve as an educational counterpoint to the G-8 summit, says the police tactics are a kind of subtle intimidation to those who would rent out their facilities to demonstrators.

“When people are nice enough to let you use their facility for a positive community event, you don’t want to have them suffer the intimidation of police trotting off to talk to their employers,” he said.

The tactics serve to create an “atmosphere of fear,” says Susan Hunt, a T.O.E.S. organizer and economist who this week has been looking for a venue in Brunswick. “Yesterday we went to a beautiful black church in Brunswick. The minister said he’d worked really hard to get his church where it was. ... He didn’t want to jeopardize that by working with people that were being called ‘protesters.’ But we’re not protesters. We’re just trying to have a conference.”

Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, co-founder of the Partnership for Civil Justice, says the trend of governmental interference in what are First Amendment-protected rights has grown in the past several years.

“There is nothing about expressing a political point of view that gives police authorization to tie that to presumptively criminal activity. And that is what they do.”

Verheyden-Hilliard says both the World Trade Organization violence in Seattle in 2000 and the 9/11 attacks have given authorities the political leverage to further infringe on First Amendment rights. Eventually, the pendulum swings in the other direction.

“At some point in time, there becomes such a powerful force from people’s resistance, and the success of the goals of the movement, and a public outcry against the repression, that the police and government are pushed back for some period of time.”

There are some hopeful signs already. In 2002, just months after 9/11, 49 percent of those polled by the Freedom Forum foundation agreed that the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees. A year later, that percentage had fallen to 34.