Protesters being beaten in the Middle East. North Koreans fleeing across the Demilitarized Zone. That’s what we think of when we envision a “police state.” But the world’s largest police state that suppresses freedom of speech is the country we call home.
There have been around 7,000, and counting, Occupy movement-related arrests since protests began in Zuccotti Park on Sept. 17.
In the last month alone, we’ve witnessed two serious attacks on the First Amendment, both happening at our most honorable institution of higher learning—the University of New Mexico.
First, Nonie Darwish, a rabidly pro-Israel (and vehemently anti-Muslim) writer came to UNM to give a speech at the end of February.
The plan was for a dozen people to “mic check” her spiel, shouting out a 20-second speech beginning with “Nonie Darwish speaks for Israeli apartheid.” And they didn't get much further than that because they were physically assaulted by attendees.
A friend of mine was punched in the head so hard by one gentleman that she was hospitalized with a concussion. The whole thing's on video—a viral video, even.
Although it didn’t get as many views or as much media coverage as “Shit Burqueños Say,” the YouTube video “UNM Students being attacked at an Israel Alliance event on campus” racked up more than 100,000 views in 12 hours, and is nearing 170,000. The video shows peaceful protesters being subjected to violence, and the faces of their assailants are clearly visible.
The UNM administration announced it is pursuing criminal charges—against Brittany Arneson, one of the mic-checkers.
The administration is also pursuing a separate academic disciplinary action against Arneson, as well as another protester arrested in Yale Park three days later. The common thread between the two cases is that both women are vocal members of (un)Occupy Albuquerque.
I, along with my fellow protesters, spent most of that weekend crowded onto the sidewalk in front of the park, trying not to get hit by passing buses. UNM’s administration has indicated it isn’t going to tolerate (Un)occupy on campus anymore. In a violation of the First Amendment, UNM police told us they were under orders that weekend to keep (Un)occupy Albuquerque, specifically, out of Yale Park.
Adding to the police state vibe, the cops quickly made it clear that they were actually eager to hurt us. Several officers physically threatened people. One has a standing threat against a member of (Un)occupy to show him the true meaning of violence, according to a letter the protester wrote to the Daily Lobo.
One officer told me I wasn't allowed to film her, which is false. Another, quaking with rage at the sight of a tent I had set up near Zimmerman Library, told me I would be arrested if I didn't leave campus immediately. When I asked him what the charges would be, he told me, “I guess you'll find out when you talk to the judge.”
Call me an idealist, but I don't think that's how a democracy is supposed to work.
But sadly, a person is more likely to go to prison in the United States than in any other country in the world. The situation is only getting worse. Consider the new problematic laws that can potentially lock objectors away. Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act, despite nationwide objections to the fact that it allows the president to indefinitely detain suspected terrorists without trial. Congress just passed a trespass bill that makes it illegal to assemble near government officials. And coming down the pike is the Enemy Expatriation Act, which strips hostiles of their nationality.
The actions of the administration and the UNM police force reveal the extent to which local authorities are willing to go to suppress free speech. It also demonstrates that, far from acting to stop violence, they actually support the tactic when used against people who disagree with them.
Like the federal government, UNM is a public institution, funded in large part by taxpayers. So I suppose it makes sense they would use the same authoritarian tactics as, say, the Department of Homeland Security.
This does not, of course, mean that we should stop exercising our rights. In fact, it makes it all the more necessary. Without people brave enough to speak out against injustice despite the consequences, we would still be living in a country where only white male landowners have the right to vote.
As old-time union folk singer Utah Phillips said, “The state can’t give you freedom, and the state can’t take it away. You’re born with it, like your eyes, like your ears.” It’s up to all of us to prove we’re brave enough to actually use it.