Anti-Speech Zones at the DNC

Bhaskar Sunkara

We’ve become used to attacks on speech during alleged states of emergency, but pre-emptive clampdowns still have a bit of novelty to them. The measures underway in Charlotte, home to this year’s Democratic National Convention, are particularly egregious.

As far as a mile from arenas where the events are held, new city ordinances ban the ordinary – including strollers, cans of Budweiser, family pets and flags – begging the question, Why does Charlotte hate America?”

The ambiguity of the regulations is striking. As the Associated Press notes, A section banning a container or object of sufficient weight to be used as a projectile’ could be interpreted to include almost anything, from an apple to an iPhone.”

The law reads that way, but Charlotte doesn’t actually look like a city under martial law. Just a year after Occupy Wall Street’s emergence, the protests in the city have been poorly attended. At the height of the movement last fall, many had expected mass left-wing resistance at the DNC, much like the Chicago-hosted 1968 convention. On Sunday, less than a thousand protesters marched through Charlotte’s central business district.

Neither the event nor the police response turned out to be noteworthy, and the new ordinances went largely unenforced. But nonetheless, the laws give significant flexibility to police forces who want to smash peaceful movements before they become threatening. It’s part of a wider criminalization of dissent by a thousand cuts.

Seattle’s 1999 World Trade Summit and the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York are prominent in the minds of authorities. Protesters ran amok in Seattle, but in New York police used new powers developed in the context of post-9/11 counter-terrorism to maintain order through mass arrests. An unprecedented number, almost 2,000, were arrested, but 90 percent of these charges were eventually dropped.

The strategy was deliberate: better to maintain order through unconstitutional means and deal with the legal consequences afterwards, than let protests get large and visible enough to make a change. That the police haven’t been wielding their new powers in Charlotte isn’t Southern hospitality, it’s a sign of the Left’s weakness.

Bhaskar Sunkara is the founding editor of Jacobin magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @sunraysunray.
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