By Boris Volkhonsky
A couple of days ago, President Barack Obama signed the highly controversial HR 347 bill, officially titled “Federal Restricted Building and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011”, but already labeled as “Trespass Bill”, passed almost unanimously by the U.S. Congress in late February.
The new legislation imposes restrictions on any “disorderly or disruptive conduct”that might “impede or disrupt the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions.” The “Catch-22” of the legislation is that it virtually gives full freedom to the Secret Service to determine exactly which premises and grounds which otherwise may be free to public access, will be declared restricted.
The reasons why such legislation has been adopted at this particular moment are obvious. The year 2011 saw an unprecedented wave of protests within the framework of the “Occupy” movement. The year 2012 witnesses several important events that are sure to attract the renewed attention of the protesters. Among them, the NATO and G8 summits in Chicago in May, as well as the Democratic and Republican Conventions later in summer.
It is true that certain statesmen, their families, foreign diplomats, etc. need protection by the Secret Service. But for too many in the U.S. the HR 347 bill means an outright violation of the most fundamental of all fundamental laws existing in the country – that is the First Amendment which grants the U.S. citizens freedom of expression and assembly. Now that any area can be labeled as restricted, the U.S. law enforcement agencies are empowered with unlimited rights to persecute anyone who would simply desire to express his or her dissatisfaction with the current policies. The popular venue of protesters on the sidelines of Pennsylvania Avenue across from the White House may become number one in the list of restricted areas, where demonstrations would be equaled to “disorderly or disruptive conduct”that might “impede or disrupt the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions.”
Just recently we spoke on the attitudes adopted by the U.S. law enforcement in regard to people who just happened to be near the “Occupy” protest sites. They may be kept in custody, strip-searched and interrogated just because they were buying coffee in a nearby shop and the police suspect that they might be willing to join the protests. Now the practice has been legalized both by the Congress and President.
As U.S. Representative Justin Amash who was one of only three lawmakers to vote against the Act wrote on his Facebook account, “The bill expands current law to make it a crime to enter or remain in an area where an official is visiting even if the person does not know it’s illegal to be in that area and has no reason to suspect it’s illegal.”
Together with the recent authorization of extrajudicial killings of U.S. citizens abroad suspected of plotting an attack against the U.S. national interests, it seems that the present American rulers would simply love to wipe away completely such an option. It would automatically mean that there would be protesters “disrupting the orderly conduct of Government business,” and it would also make the First Amendment completely meaningless. In a country with no subjects, no one needs freedom of expression. The one who dares to speak up may be suspected of plotting an attack, and be eliminated extra judicially.
The tendency is clear – the U.S. is gradually turning into a police state. What started as a counterterrorist activity in the wake of 9/11 has turned into a total war of the state on its own citizens. The peaceful protesters can be easily labeled as suspected terrorists with all the consequences.
And if the First Amendment stands in the way, get rid of it.
The only remaining question is whether there are enough bars in the country to keep the suspected protesters behind them.
Boris Volkhonsky, senior research fellow, Russian Institute for Strategic Studies