Locking Down Boston: An Exercise in American Democracy

Revolutionary Worker #1248, August 8, 2004, posted at http://rwor.org

If you want to see American "democracy" in action in these days of the endless "war on terror," the streets of Boston during the Democratic National Convention provided a clear and ominous example.

In the weeks leading up to the DNC, government officials stepped up warnings of possible "terrorist" attacks during the Democratic and Republican party conventions and the presidential elections. These supposed threats became justification for putting large parts of Boston under lockdown during the DNC and for stifling dissent and protest.

Let's start with the infamous "free speech zone"--an Orwellian name for the officially designated protest space near the convention site. There it was, a stretch of asphalt tucked under defunct train tracks, surrounded by chain link fencing and netting, making those inside barely visible to anyone passing by. And lining the top of the space was razor wire--reminding people of the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo Bay.

Anyone was "free" to express their political views without threat of a police baton--as long as they stayed inside this cage. The whole setup brought to mind the old Woody Allen line--"a travesty of a mockery of a sham."

Even the federal judge who heard a legal challenge to this outrageous restriction said in open court, "I, at first, thought before taking the view [of the "free speech zone"] that the characterization of the space as being like an internment camp were litigation hyperbole. I now believe that it's an understatment. One cannot conceive of what other elements you would put in place to make a space more of an affront to the idea of free expression."

This same judge then proceeded to deny the protest groups' challenge to the protest site--saying that the setup was justified by concern about the "safety" of the convention delegates!

The lockdown was not just around the convention site at Fleet Center. Authorities closed 40 miles of highway leading into and out of the city to traffic.

On the subway trains, passengers were forced to submit to fascistic police measures. A writer for the Village Voice described the scene: "Just as soon as the inbound Orange Line train leaves Charlestown's Sullivan Square, on the way to Fleet Center, the conductor announces that police will be boarding at the next stop to search all bags. Dutifully, the passengers unzip their backpacks and briefcases and hold them open, facing the main aisle. Transit cops, dressed in jumpsuits and carrying guns and nightsticks, work their way up and down the car."

Tourists who wanted to take snapshots on the train would have found themselves confronted by whatever police, Secret Service, or FBI happened to be around--because of a ban on taking pictures.

With help from the Department of Homeland Security, 5,000 extra cops flooded the streets--equipped with futuristic riot gear, rubber bullets, and other "non-lethal" weaponry.

The Coast Guard used infra-red night vision glasses to patrol the nearby waters and boarded commercial ships for "security checks." At Logan Airport, aside from the standard prison-level searches of air passengers, corporate and private flights were banned altogether during the DNC.

The media got into the act too. A spokesperson for news station WHDH told the Boston Globe , "News crews at potentially volatile locations have full protective gear, which includes gas mask, bullet proof vests, helmets and goggles."

Not far in the background from all this was the military. Air Force jet fighters patrolled the skies. And "somewhere near the city," a commander with the Northern Command--the domestic U.S. military command created after 9/11--was set to order forces into the heart of Boston. According to the Boston Globe , this commander had the ability to mobilize "an unknown number of National Guard and active-duty military personnel" if the authorities had decided there was a need.

All this was done under a banner of "protecting people's safety." People were supposed to be not only cooperative, but happy about this. And there was an element of getting people to think of the intensifying repression as the norm. The president of the Beacon Hill Civic Association told the Boston Globe, "They have said they are slowly ratcheting up [security]. We get used to one thing; then they ratchet up a bit. But it seems like this last week, whammo!"

Meanwhile, inside Fleet Center, Democratic Party politicians talked about wanting "our children to grow up in a secure America." No matter who is elected this November, a glimpse of what the rulers of this country mean by "secure America" could be seen in the streets of Boston at the end of July 2004.