Hyperbole? You decide if this is how you believe the police should behave when citizens are exercising their constitutional right to free speech.
On Monday, Dec. 16, 16 people were arrested at two different locations on Highway 26 outside John Day, Ore. They were there in response to Omega Morgan Company moving a heat condenser from the port of Umatilla to the Tar Sands site of the XL pipeline in Canada. This mega-load is so wide that it takes up two lanes of traffic, is 18 feet high, 376 feet long and weighs 450 tons. A similar load was unstable enough to tip over the next day and snarl up traffic on I-205 for hours.
Four of the protesters put disabled vehicles on the highway to block the mega-load and bravely locked themselves to the cars. Their action is to protest the devastation of the Athabascan First Nations lands and waters in Alberta that have been destroyed by the mining of the dirty Tar Sands. Additionally, they protest the fact that if all the oil is mined and burned, it will release more carbon than scientists say the planet can tolerate without baking. The protesters were acting to protect all of us.
The police responded by arresting not only the four, but also 12 support people (including one minor) who were standing off on the side of the road. Officers issued no warning. Various items were taken from the protesters leaving them exposed to sub-freezing temperatures for 45 minutes. Some of the activists who were locked down to the vehicles were dragged across the asphalt while still locked to the vehicles, literally a risk to limbs if not lives. They were taken to waiting ambulances and inside these vehicles, which are intended to provide medical care to people, officers used pain compliance to force protesters to comply with various demands. In some countries this is called torture.
Earlier this month some of these same protesters were on hand across the street from the $32,000 per couple fundraiser that President Obama held in Seattle. They were again peacefully trying to reach the President through banners asking him to cancel the XL pipeline. Secret Service ran jamming devices so that all cell phones in the area went straight to voice mail but could not connect, again interfering with protesters’ (and uninvolved neighbors’) ability to communicate with each other and the press, and thus with their right to free speech. An intimidating armored vehicle was also parked on the street and swat team members in bullet-proof vests, carrying assault weapons, paraded around. Well, we need to protect the President you say? Agreed, but this over-the-top show of force is just a waste of taxpayers money and also violates civil liberties.
During Occupy, in city after city the “riot control” squads came out to control crowds of completely non-violent protesters. Swat teams were clad in all black “Darth Vader outfits” with smoked visor helmets that render them faceless. They do not have their names listed on their jackets like regular police, and act anonymously, with impunity. We learned at that time that squads in every major city had been given special military training, which includes the tactics of disorientation, “pain compliance” techniques used last Monday in John Day, and tear gas sprayed directly into people’s face (which can be life threatening if someone has asthma). Why would we militarize police who deal with American civilians? Is this how we want our citizenry treated? Is this what we want done with our tax dollars?
So maybe climate change is not your cause. But whatever your favorite cause, is this how you would like to be treated if you came out to simply demonstrate your thoughts? I think there was wisdom in the founding father’s desire to protect dissent, regardless of the cause, which they saw as critical to true democracy.
Lynn Fitz-Hugh, of Seattle, is a lifelong peace activist, a mother, therapist, and writes for PeaceVoice.