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Mocking Constitutional Rights

By Nat Parry
September 10, 2008

On the third day of the Republican National Convention, GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin mocked Barack Obama for believing that individuals accused of terrorism actually have rights under the law.

"Al-Qaeda terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America,” Palin said, “and he’s worried that someone won’t read them their rights.”

The implication was that those suspected of being terrorists have no rights under domestic or international law. The line elicited thunderous approval from the party faithful gathered in St. Paul, Minnesota.

As the GOP delegates cheered, civil libertarians were reminded of the contempt that the Bush administration has shown to basic legal principles in its prosecution of the “war on terror,” and the resounding approval these policies have gotten from the Republican Party as a whole.

Perhaps viewers at home even nodded in agreement when thinking of the “catastrophic harm” that some individuals would like to inflict on America, and how important it is to keep America safe at all costs.

But just outside the convention hall, police offered a stark reminder of how important those rights are, especially considering how broadly the term “terrorism” can be applied to just about anyone who speaks out against government policies.

Over several days of the convention, primarily peaceful Americans protesting the war in Iraq and the broader Republican agenda were targeted by aggressive police decked out in full riot gear and armed with Tasers, pepper spray, rubber bullets and tear gas.

An activist convergence center was raided, as were the homes of several protest organizers, and demonstrators were attacked, manhandled and arrested. [See's "Storm Troopers at the RNC."]

In the jails, protesters were mistreated and even tortured, some claim.

A 19-year-old protester named Elliot Hughes alleged at a press conference that he had been beaten unconscious by police, who then banged his head against the floor to wake him up. They then moved him to a separate cell where they put a hood over his head with a gag and used pain-compliance holds on him for about an hour and a half.

His injuries were severe enough that he checked himself into a hospital after being released from jail.

Journalists Arrested

Several independent journalists were also arrested and manhandled, including Pacifica’s Amy Goodman, the host of “Democracy Now!”

As Goodman describes what happened to her and two of her colleagues, “I was at the Xcel Center on the convention floor, interviewing delegates. I had just made it to the Minnesota delegation when I got a call on my cell phone with news that Sharif (Abdel Kouddous) and Nicole (Salazar) were being bloody arrested, in every sense.

“Filmmaker Rick Rowley of Big Noise Films and I raced on foot to the scene. Out of breath, we arrived at the parking lot. I went up to the line of riot police and asked to speak to a commanding officer, saying that they had arrested accredited journalists.

“Within seconds, they grabbed me, pulled me behind the police line and forcibly twisted my arms behind my back and handcuffed me, the rigid plastic cuffs digging into my wrists. I saw Sharif, his arm bloody, his credentials hanging from his neck.

“I repeated we were accredited journalists, whereupon a Secret Service agent came over and ripped my convention credential from my neck. I was taken to the St. Paul police garage where cages were set up for protesters. I was charged with obstruction of a peace officer. Nicole and Sharif were taken to jail, facing riot charges.”

While what happened to Amy Goodman was no doubt deplorable as was the abuse that protesters endured in jail, what could be perhaps more chilling to the average American is the fact that other participants in the RNC protests are actually facing terrorism charges – on little to no actual evidence.

'Furthering Terrorism'

On the same day that Palin gave her speech mocking the rights of terror suspects, eight alleged leaders of an anti-authoritarian activist group called the RNC Welcoming Committee were formally charged with "Conspiracy to Riot in Furtherance of Terrorism."

The eight are being prosecuted under a 2002 Minnesota state law modeled on the USA Patriot Act. They now face up to over seven years in prison under the terrorism enhancement charge, with the only evidence against them apparently the testimony of law enforcement officials who infiltrated their organization.

Under the 2002 state law, a crime is considered to "further terrorism" if it is "intended" to "terrorize, intimidate, or coerce a considerable number of members of the public in addition to the direct victims of the act."

If accused of "furthering terrorism," individuals face a 50 percent increase in the maximum penalty they would receive for committing similar crimes (such as vandalism) that are not "intended" to "coerce" the public.

The language of the Minnesota law is eerily similar to the original Patriot Act, passed hastily in the aftermath of 9/11. Section 802 of the Patriot Act defines domestic terrorism as “activities that (A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the U.S. or any state; (B) appear to be intended (i) to influence policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (ii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and (C) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S. …” 

Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Bar Association have long objected to this definition, particularly the provision of (B)(i). The prohibition against seeking to influence government policy by “intimidation” is so vague and so subjective that virtually any act of civil disobedience or confrontational protest could fit under the definition, the critics have said.

Now it is clear that these concerns were valid.

While there have been other cases in which activists have been investigated by the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force and otherwise treated as “terrorists,” the arrest of these eight individuals clearly marks an escalation of what some have called “the criminalization of dissent,” and what others see as the merger of domestic law enforcement and the larger “global war on terror.”


The case of the “RNC 8” reminds those engaged in protest activities that they need not actually commit a crime to be accused of terrorism.

As the National Lawyers Guild points out, “The criminal complaints filed by the Ramsey County Attorney do not allege that any of the defendants personally have engaged in any act of violence or damage to property. The complaints list all of [the] alleged violations of law during the last few days of the RNC … and seeks to hold the eight defendants responsible for acts committed by other individuals.”

In other words, without a shred of physical evidence, and based solely on the testimony of police officers who infiltrated the RNC Welcoming Committee, these individuals are being held responsible for the alleged criminal actions of others simply because they were involved with a group that advocated disrupting the RNC with confrontational acts of protest.

At best, it can be considered guilt by association.

But if Sarah Palin and the Republican Party were to have their way, these individuals would not even have the ability to challenge these charges in court.

After all, they are accused of terrorism, and as the Republicans have made clear, those accused of terrorism don’t have any rights – not even the right to habeas corpus, a centuries-old legal tradition that affords the accused the right to face their accuser and challenge their detention in a court of law.

This is a point that Barack Obama actually made as a follow-up to Palin’s comment at the RNC. Obama, who used to teach constitutional law at the University of Chicago, said on Sept. 8 that captured terror suspects deserve at least the right to file writs of habeas corpus challenging their detention.

Calling it “the foundation of Anglo-American law,” he said the principle of habeas corpus “says very simply: If the government grabs you, then you have the right to at least ask, ‘Why was I grabbed?’ And say, ‘Maybe you've got the wrong person.’”

In the case of the RNC 8, the principle may be even more fundamental than that. Without the right of habeas corpus, these individuals would never be able to face their accusers and see the evidence against them – which, according to their lawyers is nothing more than the accusations of police officers who infiltrated their organization.

But considering the direction that law enforcement has been heading, and the ever-growing equation of protest activism with “terrorism,” it is not inconceivable that someday defendants such as the RNC 8 may not even have the chance to defend themselves in court.

It is especially chilling how enthusiastically Sarah Palin’s mockery of Americans’ constitutional rights was received in St. Paul by the convention delegates.

And with the relative silence that the story of RNC protests and police abuse has received in the mainstream media, it is doubtful many would even notice if constitutional rights continue to be rolled back.

Nat Parry is co-author of Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush.

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