The First Amendment and The Surveillance State On Full Display During the Conventions

Friday, August 19, 2016

By Paul J. Hetznecker

Last month during both the Republican National Convention in Cleveland and the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, the federal government declared each of these conventions as “National Security Events.” Following months of planning in conjunction with these declarations, the government designated large areas of public space as “national security zones,” excluding protestors, as well as the general public from large segments of each city. As far back as the 1980’s the federal government’s effort to undermine the First Amendment rights of protesters encompassed a number of controversial measures. In advance of the political conventions the federal government, coordinating with state and local law enforcement agencies, would create “protest zones” cordoning off areas far from the conventions sites designated for protest activity. In classic “Orwellian” double speak, these “free speech zones” were essentially “speech prisons” or islands of dissent, clearly marked “cages” far from the convention sites, political candidates, corporate benefactors and the media, designed to marginalize and ultimately silence the voices of democracy. Although legal challenges to the protest zones have been mixed, many protesters have ignored the courts pre-convention restrictions re-affirming the historic lesson that First Amendment rights cannot by curtailed by governmental institutions.

This year the architects of the modern “Panopticon” have employed a different design in their effort to quell the voices of protest. Instead of creating “protest prisons” the federal, state and local authorities declare a “National Security Event” which then mandates the creation of “national security zones,” gobbling up large swaths of public space declaring them off-limits to everyone without a security clearance. These “national security zones,” arbitrarily cordoned off with eight foot high steel fences, became security fortresses serve much like the “Green Zone” in Iraq. Inside these zones the constitution is temporarily suspended as all protests are barred, and local authorities abdicate control to officials from the Department of Homeland Security, FBI and Secret Service.

The political conventions provide only a glimpse into a much more subversive development in growth of the Surveillance State. Looking beyond the security measures undertaken for the political conventions, the central theme of governance reflected in this overreaching are the twin mandates of crime prevention and national security. Concerns over personal safety to the exclusion of freedom, offer the new political mandate, forming the model for the Surveillance State, , a controlled environment where the focus of government merges crime prevention and national security. This blatant form of social engineering reminds us of Foucault’s “Panopticon,” or the “Disneyland” model predicated on “the spectacle of democracy” hiding the emerging world of surveillance and social control.

Virtually every public space has become a security zone, where restricted access and entry is based on giving up freedom and privacy. Enter the museum you give up your bags, backpacks, cameras, all for our safety. Enter the airport give up all privacy, including the right to the privacy of your body. Enter the school and you are subject to a metal detector. Enter the university, give up your right to free exchange, as you cannot access the internet unless you agree to surveillance of your computer. Enter the workplace and succumb to a complete loss of private communication. Cross over a barrier arbitrarily set by National Security Officials and your are charged as a trespasser. Welcome to the Surveillance State, where the landscape of freedom has been forever altered.

With the dual mandates of “crime prevention” and “national security,” as the governing principles of this Surveillance State, the prison has become the model for all other environments. The structural hierarchy and punitive nature of the prison is reflected in every other institution. The Surveillance State is based on the notion that greater control of public, as well as private space, means greater protection and an overwhelming loss of freedom.

Political participation does not begin and end at the ballot box. Political protest is the life blood of our democracy, the very essence of a free society. The Republican and Democratic Conventions are not just coronations for the corporate autocracy, but the focal point of real political discourse over the future of this country. Efforts to undermine free speech whether in the form of a “speech prison,” labeled a “free speech zone,” or a security fortress labeled a “National Security Zone,” only reinforce the necessity of the free exchange of ideas outside the dictates of government.

Last month in Philadelphia protesters took to the streets in a full-throated celebration of democracy. Marches and demonstrations flourished throughout the City and out of the cradle of liberty the First Amendment once again found life, as the voice of dissent is the call to freedom.

Paul J. Hetznecker