Georgia when it fizzles

The G-8 protests came to nothing -- another victory for the U.S. crackdown on dissent.


There was a military checkpoint on the way to the candlelight peace vigil on Georgia’s St. Simons Island on Tuesday, manned by National Guard soldiers in an olive Humvee. It was the first day of the Group of Eight summit on Sea Island, and soldiers were all over coastal Georgia. Six or seven were parked on a street corner on Martin Luther King and L across from a housing project in Brunswick, a town of 15,000 that’s more than 10 miles from Sea Island. Brunswick proved to be the nearest protesters could get to the international confab where George W. Bush, Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac, Vladimir Putin and other world leaders were transacting the business of the planet, and during the summit, held from June 8 to June 10, it looked a lot like a police state.

A distant location in a conservative state; a massive police presence; the fact that many protesters were either disillusioned by mass actions or intimidated by the brutal tactics meted out in Miami: Add these together, and you get the reason why the expected big protests against the G-8 barely materialized. And Sea Island is not the exception but, increasingly, the rule. Police and politicians in America are cracking down hard on dissent, whether by smashing heads, declaring a state of emergency or denying permits. For those committed to the idea that nonviolent protest is a fundamental American right, Sea Island is not a triumph of law enforcement but a cautionary tale.

Georgia was able to mobilize unprecedented force by using the lawbooks. Ordinarily, thanks to the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act, government is forbidden from using the military for domestic law enforcement. But Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican, found a way around this nuisance by declaring a state of emergency, citing danger from “unlawful assemblages” and other threats. The state of emergency allowed him to bring in the National Guard, flooding the streets with reservists in full camouflage. As the Associated Press reported, a week before the declaration, Brunswick amended its laws to give police authority to ban protests if the governor declared a state of emergency. The city also enacted an ordinance requiring permits for gatherings of more than five people.

Besides the soldiers, there were, according to Georgia authorities, around 20,000 police in the area. They cruised the streets in 30-vehicle convoys, lights flashing, with vans full of cops in riot gear bringing up the rear. The massive police presence was perhaps understandable on Sea Island, which was also protected by Secret Service personnel and Coast Guard gunboats. It was less clear why the police felt compelled to swarm over Brunswick, a largely poor, black community surrounded by long stretches of strip-malled American nowhere and the place where the few anti-G-8 protesters who showed up gathered. Every few minutes, a police car would drive slowly by St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church, which the local Indymedia crew had turned into a headquarters. Others drove in and out of the parking lot at the community college where activists converged.

Maybe they were wondering where the protesters were. In the end, after the local media scared residents with tales of rampaging anarchists, after organizers fought for permits to accommodate thousands, after the police prepared for a violent showdown, hardly anyone showed up. “What if they gave a protest and nobody came?” joked Al Crespo, a Miami photographer who specializes in shooting demonstrators. Only a few hundred people made their way to Georgia to demonstrate against the G-8, meaning there were hundreds of cops for every activist.

Those who came spent much of their time discussing why so few had joined them. Some reluctantly concluded that the summit’s planners and the police, who’d set out to thwart protests, had won.

In the past, G-8 summits, where leaders of the major industrial democracies and Russia meet to discuss trade and global policy, have been met by thousands of rowdy demonstrators. In Genoa, Italy, in 2001, riots broke out and one protester, 23-year-old Carlo Giuliani, was shot dead. To thwart these protests, international trade meetings are increasingly held in inaccessible places like Doha, Qatar, site of the 2001 World Trade Organization summit.

Authorities are also using other techniques for stifling dissenters, or rendering them invisible. Often, those wishing to demonstrate against George W. Bush are shunted into isolated “free-speech zones,” while his supporters are permitted to get close to him — and to TV cameras. In October of 2002, South Carolina activist Brett Bursey was arrested for trespassing when, refusing to be contained to a free-speech zone, he made his way into a crowd of several hundred Bush supporters waiting to greet the president as he arrived at Columbia Metropolitan Airport and held a “No War for Oil Sign.”

Throughout the country, activist groups have been infiltrated by police, often working for Joint Terrorism Task Forces under the jurisdiction of the FBI. And police have been increasingly violent in response to peaceful protest. Last November in Miami, 2,500 police in riot gear unloaded fusillades of crowd-control weaponry against 10,000 or so overwhelmingly peaceful protesters.

A Miami-Dade County panel charged with investigating the debacle issued a scathing report on police misconduct during the FTAA. According to a draft of their executive summary posted on the panel’s Web site, “The members of the Independent Review Panel strenuously condemn and deplore the unrestrained and disproportionate use of force observed in Miami during the FTAA. Nationally televised images of police violence against non-violent protestors stained our community. For a brief period in time, Miami lived under martial law. Civil rights were trampled and the sociopolitical values we hold most dear were undermined.”

Police are even cracking down on protesters in lefty San Francisco. At a Tuesday evening demonstration against both the G-8 and Bio 2004, an international biotech conference held in the city this week, police outnumbered the few hundred protesters. As the march down Market Street got underway, it became clear that the police weren’t going to let marchers so much as step into the street without a crackdown. Dozens of motorcycle cops roared into action, speeding ahead of the march to block it off and shut it down. Sirens announced the arrival of riot cops and an arrest bus. Wielding batons and zip-tie handcuffs, riot police formed a wall around the protesters. Within two hours, they’d arrested 133 people, adding to the 32 demonstrators who were arrested earlier in the day.

Beyond the barricade, hundreds of curious onlookers questioned why such heavy-handed police force was necessary to quell the colorful, but otherwise run-of-the-mill San Francisco demonstration.

In Georgia, it seemed clear what drove the massive police response. Officials there have pointed to what happened at the FTAA in Florida as a model, not a disgrace. Bill Hitchens, director of Georgia’s Department of Homeland Security, was in Miami to observe the police response to the FTAA protests, and upon his return he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “I certainly think this is a precursor for what we could see” at the G-8 summit. “We need to do much the same as they did.”

In the end, though, police never got a chance to try the Miami model in Georgia, because there was no one to use it on.

A large part of the problem was geographic. There was no way for protesters to get close enough to the summit to be seen or heard, and for organizers, Brunswick proved a poor alternative.

Activists planning rallies and a so-called alternative summit — an anti-globalization conference and fair — were denied permits to use most of Brunswick’s parks and schools. At the last minute, Gov. Perdue intervened to help them secure a permit for Coastal Georgia Community College, an out-of-the-way campus on a stretch of road filled with fast-food franchises, a Bowlarena and little else. The only outsiders who got a glimpse of the activities there were the police who lingered in the parking lot and the enterprising locals who set up shop selling fried shrimp and fish sandwiches. Motels nearby were difficult to come by — most had been booked to house out-of-town police, and those that had rooms were charging $150 a night and more.

When protesters left the campus to march through the streets of Brunswick, both cops and reporters easily outnumbered them. On Tuesday, the antiwar vigil on St. Simons Island, an upscale community near Sea Island, took place largely without incident, but on Wednesday 100 police, some in riot gear, blocked a few dozen demonstrators who tried to march across the bridge separating St. Simons from Brunswick.

“Brunswick is not the easiest place to get to,” said Jason Mark, communications director at Global Exchange and co-author of the 2003 book “Insurrection: Citizen Challenges to Corporate Power.” “They deliberately put [the G-8] in a red state. The location really hurt.”

It wasn’t just logistics, though, that kept so many away. Fear played a role, as did a sense of futility. “A lot of people went down to Miami, got the shit kicked out of them, and said fuck mass convergences,” said Matt Jones, a 25-year-old college student from Rome, Ga., who was handing out free bread, muffins and burritos at the Food Not Bombs table. “A lot of people when they come to a mass convergence feel like they can’t make a difference.”

That’s one reason that Jones says he’s not going to protest the Republican National Convention in New York in August and September. After Miami, he said, he’s interested in “decentralized, autonomous action — working in your home, your community.”

Jones is in the minority. One reason that many groups — including the big unions, who brought out most of the protesters last year in Miami — stayed away from Georgia is because they’re saving their energy and resources for New York. Several people in Brunswick admitted they were too scared to go to the Republican Convention, but more said they couldn’t wait.

Still, it was clear that Miami, coupled with the state of emergency in Georgia, had severely shaken activists. “A lot of people have really been scared by what they know happened in Miami,” said a gray-haired woman from Atlanta. Like several older protesters, she refused to give her name, saying she feared for her job if she went public with her politics.

Jean Grossholtz, a 75-year-old retired Mount Holyoke professor, was appalled by the success of the intimidation. “The fear factor raised here was extraordinary,” she said. So was the sense of impotence. “People were told in no uncertain terms that they won’t be allowed to demonstrate,” she said. “They knew they wouldn’t get anywhere near the G-8.”

Grossholtz, who’d driven down in an R.V. from Massachusetts, had previously traveled to anti-globalization protests in Prague, Czech Republic, and Genoa, and seemed irritated that people were so easily spooked. “What are people scared of?” she asked. “They push you around and put you in jail for a couple of days. They’re not going to kill you.”

Grossholz said she was glad she came, though, because it showed her what she needs to do to prepare for the Democratic and Republican National Conventions this summer. When she returns to Massachusetts, she said, she planned to launch a campaign to force local and state officials to acknowledge the rights of demonstrators during the Boston Democratic Convention.

Such a campaign has already begun in New York. Last Sunday, the New York Civil Liberties Union held a press conference at City Hall with Democratic Reps. Major Owens and Jerrold Nadler, City Council Speaker Gifford Miller and Deputy Majority Leader William Perkins to announce the launch of the Protecting Protest campaign.

The congressmen are pressing Mayor Michael Bloomberg to sign a memorandum of understanding, endorsed by five members of New York’s congressional delegation, safeguarding the rights of demonstrators at the RNC.

Meanwhile, Miller has introduced a resolution in the New York City Council calling for police to act quickly on protest permits — eliminating the stalling tactics that have frustrated the efforts of many organizers — and to cut back on the use of the barricades that hem protesters in and break up large gatherings.

At the press conference, Owens spoke of the NYPD’s recent use of mounted policemen against peaceful demonstrators. “In the civil rights struggle, I had to face the horses a few times,” he said. “I thought those days were over.” New York City, said Owens, needs to “let all of us who stand against [Republican] policies be able to say that in a meaningful and significant way.”

But Grossholtz insisted that protest can’t be about what the police let you do. “For me, what we need is a million people standing in the streets with a sign saying, ‘No to Empire. No to Bush.’ We don’t need slogans. We don’t need loudspeakers. We don’t need puppets. We have to say to the world that there are a million of us over here who are opposed to this. First of all you get the numbers. Then you get people to go out and sit in the streets and you don’t move. That’s what protest means.

“We’re losing something that was traditionally our right,” she says. Gesturing toward the largely empty campus where the protesters had been corralled, she said, “You can consider this a victory for the fear factor.”

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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