Inside The Frozen Zone: Death Of The First Amendment

Allison Kilkenny

The nationwide crackdowns on Occupy chapters have helped highlight the alarming militarization of city police forces. The character of the friendly neighborhood police officer is dead, replaced with a grotesque authoritarian monster shielded in thousands of dollars of battle armor, their face hidden behind a riot helmet. Indeed, police forces have become armies charged with doing the bidding of whoever, or whatever, pays the highest bidding price. In the case of New York City, this means the army (the seventh biggest army in the world,” in Mayor Bloomberg’s words) belongs to a billionaire mayor who bought himself the election, and then extended his term limit when he didn’t feel like leaving, and JPMorgan Chase, which donated $4.6 million to the NYPD in 2010.

I have my own army in the NYPD,” Bloomberg said in a speech at MIT on Tuesday. And he’s exactly right. Armies aren’t concerned with preserving the civil liberties of the peoples they are responsible for violently conquering. Armies don’t give a shit about First Amendment rights or the precious freedoms of the American people. When given their orders, armies unleash unholy hell upon the enemy, and in this case, the enemy happens to be the citizenry of the United States.

During the raid of Occupy LA, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa issued a midnight press release that included the line, During the park closure, a First Amendment area will remain open on the Spring Street City Hall steps.” The statement alarmed many individuals, including some journalists due to its creepy Orwellian language. The very concept of a First Amendment area” violates the whole idea of freedom of expression. The state shouldn’t be permitted to decide when and where journalists can cover a protest, and yet Villaraigosa’s behavior wasn’t that out of step with the suppressive tactics displayed by other mayors across the country.

In mid-November, journalist Josh Harkinson reported on being alerted about the existence of the frozen zone” when he attempted to cover the eviction of Liberty Park.

A white-shirted officer moved in with a bullhorn. If you don’t leave the park you are subject to arrest. Now is your opportunity to leave the park.”

Nobody budged. As a lone drum pounded, I climbed up on the wall to get a better view.

Can I help you?” an burly officer asked me, his helpfulness belied by his scowl.

I’m a reporter,” I told him.

This is a frozen zone, all right?” he said, using a term I’d never heard before. Just like them, you have to leave the area. If you do not, you will be subject to arrest.”

He grabbed my arm and began dragging me off. My shoes skidded across the park’s slimy granite floor. All around me, zip-cuffed occupiers writhed on the ground beneath a fog of chemicals.

I just want to witness what is going on here,” I yelped.

You can witness it with the rest of the press,” he said. Which, of course, meant not witnessing it.

Why are you excluding the press from observing this?” I asked.

Because this is a frozen zone. It’s a police action going on. You could be injured.”

His meaning was clear. I let myself be hustled across the street to the press pen.

What’s your name?”

His reply came as fast as he could turn away: Watch your back.”

The frozen zone” is an arbitrary, official police business-sounding title that has absolutely zero legal merit. It’s something the NYPD made up, just as the First Amendment zone” is something Villaraigosa made up to suppress media coverage of the Occupy raids.

While President Obama visited New York City last night to schmooze corporate donors (dinners ranged from $1,000 to nearly $36,000-a-plate,) Occupy protesters outside were subjected once again to the frozen zone treatment by the NYPD.

Shortly before Mr Obama’s arrival, protesters were penned in an enclosure of barricades, informed that the area had been designated a frozen zone’ until the President’s departure.

Observers and journalists tweeted about the re-emergence of the frozen zone, including Josh Stearns, Associate Program Director at Free Press, who remarked, Free speech zones over here, frozen zones over there - I didn’t know that First Amendment needed a zoning board.”

That quip by Stearns really gets to the heart of the matter. The First Amendment doesn’t need a zoning board, nor does it need the permission of any mayor, or police force, even if some crazy billionaire mini-dictator is operating under the assumption the NYPD is his private army.

An additional note about Occupy LA: The LA establishment media really dropped the ball when covering the camp’s eviction. The LA Times all but applauded the raid and arrest of more than 200 people, cheering the LAPD’s successful” clearing out of the camp and its ability to avoid fierce confrontations.” Except, now it’s clear that there were fierce confrontations, mostly after the press were ushered out of the park into their First Amendment area, which you’d think would concern reporters, especially considering Exiled editor Yasha Levine, a member of the press, was swept up in the arrests and is still being held along with hundreds of protesters, bail having been set at $5,000 per person. The NLG has called this police response illegal and a violation of state law.

An observer named Ruth Fowler wrote on the Occupy LA’s website:

This media pool drew mainstream media into the inner circle, where they were treated to a display of courteous policing and nonviolence by the police. Even I was impressed by the police. The operation was smooth and efficient and tactical.

Then the pool media was divided from the regular media, and kept in the inner circle. They were not present to witness the brutality and violence enacted by LAPD officers who were kettling and running after protestors in order to beat them outside the park and mainstream media attention. LAPD smoothly kept MSM from witnessing this, and tried to control other media by constant kettling and dividing of the crowd.

That brutality allegedly includes injuries by rifle-fired projectiles and beatings with batons. In fact, the LA Times was forced to somewhat correct itself when it became clear LAPD officers weren’t super nice to all of the protesters. The updated report includes testimony from Tyson Heder, 35, who went to the park not as an activist, but an observer who wished to film the eviction. The Youtube video he eventually posted shows an officer shoving Heder, Heder standing up and yelling at the officer, and then being forced to the ground by several policemen. Heder later posted on Facebook, They beat me and stole my camera.”

Heder’s sister, Christy, calls the police response horrible and excessive.” Curiously, the video showing the violence against Heder has since been pulled from Youtube, but a clever Exile commenter was able to find a functioning version, which can be viewed at the Exile.

The encroachment on First Amendment rights is aided by some traditional media outlet’s collaboration with police departments. For example, the Atlantic Monthly reported on media choreography” that took place during the Occupy LA raid, and how police chose 12 reporters and photographers to represent the media as a whole,” adding that the LAPD didn’t select a single web-based publication or alternative news outlet.” Every other journalist was told they would be arrested if they came too close to the eviction area,” which is what happened in the instance of Levine’s arrest.

The danger inherent in allowing the LAPD to arbitrarily select media representation should be obvious. In addition to missing any brutality the police simply don’t want the media pool to witness, such a system silences alternative media outlets and is ripe for access abuse. Imagine a scenario where a publication like the LA Times, which historically presents favorable coverage of police, is permitted into a pool whereas a muckraking reporter who has criticized police for brutal behavior in the past is forced into his/​her First Amendment pen.

Allison Kilkenny is an In These Times Staff Writer and the co-host of the critically acclaimed radio show Citizen Radio. Her blog for In These Times, Uprising, focuses on efforts around the world to address the global economic crisis.
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