WASHINGTON -- Two years into the post-Sept. 11 era, police across the country are cracking down on street protests, and federal prosecutors are invoking obscure laws to punish activists whose aggressive displays of political expression were once more tolerated, according to groups as diverse as Operation Rescue and Greenpeace.
While law-enforcement officials acknowledge only that the specter of terrorism has made them more wary of large crowds and disruptive behavior, activists say the newly aggressive tactics are jeopardizing a form of dissent as rooted in American tradition as the Boston Tea Party.
On Friday, lawyers for Greenpeace USA, the environmental activist organization, were in a Miami federal court to defend the group against unheard-of criminal charges of breaking an obscure 19th-century law against "sailor mongering."
The charges, which could lead to a $20,000 fine and five years of probation, sprang from a protest in April 2002. Six Greenpeace activists motored out to a freighter off Miami that they believed held mahogany taken from a protected Brazilian forest. Carrying a rolled-up "President Bush: Stop Illegal Logging" banner, two clambered up a ladder and were chased down by the crew. All were later convicted of unlawfully boarding a ship.
That should have have been the end of the event under the old rules of protest, say leaders of the group, whose activists been boarding ships to make political statements for three decades. They say that the Justice Department is trying to intimidate them into dropping their signature political act.
"This is clearly an attempt to chill the kind of nonviolent direct action that Greenpeace does," declared John Passacantado, executive director of Greenpeace USA.
That assertion is echoed by protest groups including Operation Rescue, the antiabortion group, and the antiwar organizationUnited for Peace and Justice. All say they have experienced a major clampdown on rowdy political protest.
While protests continue, civil libertarians say they fear the erosion of a form of expression that dates to Colonial days, that took hold during the civil rights and Vietnam War eras, and that continued through the end of the 20th century: crowds holding signs, shouting as officials arrive at events, and engaging in acts such as blocking roads or painting slogans on buildings.
A Justice Department spokesman, Mark Corallo, said that there has been no get-tough policy directive, and that the practice remains that "if someone breaks the law, you prosecute them."
He also suggested that "peaceful protest is alive and well in America" and that the only complaints of new limitations are coming from "people who oppose the traditional policies of law enforcement in safeguarding their communities."
Still, John Firman of the International Association of Chiefs of Police said that since Sept. 11 many law enforcement agencies have made tactical improvements to guard against the danger that a peaceful protest could be hijacked by terrorist infiltrators using the chaos of the crowd.
"While the protest itself may have no relationship to terrorism, the presence of protesters could be a vehicle for people with other issues on their minds," Firman said. "The police have the obligation to respond in a heightened way because of that window of opportunity." In practice, that increased awareness can make protesters feel as if they are "viewed not as citizens with a right to protest but as an enemy and a threat" for something as simple as showing up with a sign, said Operation Rescue president Troy Newman.
"They call out the bomb squad dogs to sniff you," he said. "They're checking your driver's license. They want to know your name, your Social Security number, how long you'll be there, and what your intent is. This is a huge change since Sept. 11. It's a mindset that law enforcement has, even toward peaceful nonviolent American citizens attempting to voice their opposition to legislation and policies."
He pointed to the annual "Red Mass" at St. Matthew's Cathedral in Washington, D.C., traditionally attended by Supreme Court justices on the Sunday before the beginning of their new term. Newman said he and other Christian activists have picketed outside the Red Mass for years without incident.
But on Oct. 5, when activists showed up protesting the removal of the Ten Commandments from the Alabama Supreme Court building, US marshals in body armor swept the sidewalk clear of anyone with a sign and arrested those who wouldn't move, Newman said. He was let go after six hours and was fined $25 for "crossing a police line."
A US Marshals Service spokesman, Don Hines, said he could not address the specifics of Newman's case, but made no apologies for his agency's tactics.
"We take our job seriously," said Hines, chief of public affairs for the US Marshals. "If we keep the sidewalk clear or the street open so the public or the justices can move in or out, that's our job. That's what we do."
Similiar stories can be found far from Washington.
In Colorado, three nuns aged 55 to 68 cut through a fence outside a missile silo on Oct. 6, 2002. They hammered and painted a cross on its concrete slab in a "symbolic disarmament." The Justice Department charged them with "obstructing national defense;" they were sentenced to between 2 1/2 and 3 1/2 years in prison. A year earlier, a priest who broke into a missile site was charged only with trespassing on federal land and sentenced to 83 days.
Richard Weatherbee, a Colorado US Attorney's office spokesman, said the nuns all had prior convictions for similar acts and that two men who trespassed at a silo on the 50th anniversary of Hiroshima in 1995 were also charged with obstructing national defense.
The former Reagan administration attorney general, Ed Meese, said he always favors prosecuting people who go beyond the "legitimate bounds of protest," and in the current climate it may be particularly important to be "very strong."
"I think the demonstrations we have seen in Seattle and Washington, D.C., [during] international monetary meetings are unconscionable," Meese said.
Last month, Miami's free trade summit became the first major antiglobalization event on US soil since Sept. 11. About 10,000 protesters were met by 2,500 police officers with millions of dollars of new body armor and crowd control equipment.
The day of the main march ended in violence as officers dispersed a crowd with rubber bullets and tear gas. Hundreds of arrests included those of an elderly retiree and a journalist who were swept up in the crackdown. A dozen busloads of retired union workers never made it through police lines to the join the march. Police defended their show of force as necessary to prevent disruptive elements from getting out of hand, but lawsuits have been promised.
In South Carolina, Brett Bursey held a sign that read "No Blood For Oil" outside the gate of an airport where President Bush was speaking in October 2002, and was arrested for refusing to move to a "free speech zone" a half-mile away out of Bush's sight. After state trespassing charges were dropped, the office of US Attorney Strom Thurmond Jr.charged Bursey under a little-used statute that allows the Secret Service to restrict areas to protect the president. Having documented more than a dozen such recent incidents around the country, the American Civil Liberties Union has recently filed a lawsuit against the US Secret Service for what it says is a pattern of either the selective removal of anti-Bush protesters while pro-Bush protesters are allowed to remain, or the removal of all who are engaged in political speech while passersby are allowed to keep using the sidewalk.
"We have noticed over the last couple of years that protesters are being treated differently than they used to be by the Secret Service," said an ACLU lawyer, Chris Hansen. "We lose liberty bit by bit by bit, so you have to fight even the small erosions of fundamental rights."
A Secret Service spokeswoman, Ann Roman, said only: "We have a longstanding policy of recognizing constitutionally protected rights of the public to demonstrate."
John Noakes, a University of Pennsylvania lecturer who has studied protests, said that he believes a shift in law enforcement attitude began with the violent 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, but that Sept. 11 gave it the financing, justification, and public support to act on its fears that protests had become unpredictable and dangerous.
Civil libertarians and political theorists worry that if law officials have become permanently less tolerant of unruly styles of political speech, both free speech rights and the national political conversation will be diminished in a new post-Sept. 11 "normalcy."
"It's those people who feel they are not being listened to and that they are being denied access to decision-makers who protest," Noakes said. "So to the extent that you allow only the institutionalized political system to define what's relevant, then your democracy becomes stilted."