Saturday, May 29, 2004
America deserves better # 15
I expect all of you are ready for a break from Iraq and Abu Ghraib. So let's take a look at the environment and civil liberties. The administration is on the attack again. Imports of illegal timber are ok. Protesting same is not ok. And so we get a step closer to a police state. America deserves better. defeat this administration.
Published on Friday, May 14, 2004 by the Los Angeles Times
Ashcroft Fishes Out 1872 Law in a Bid to Scuttle Protester Rights
by Bill McKibben
In April of 2002, a cargo ship, the Jade, was steaming toward Miami
carrying a cargo of mahogany illegally cut from the Brazilian Amazon.
Two Greenpeace activists tried to clamber aboard the ship and hang a
banner that read "President Bush: Stop Illegal Logging." None of which
The trees of the Amazon are logged day after day, year after year,
despite a host of treaties and laws and despite the fact that scientists
agree that an intact rain forest is essential for everything from
conserving species to protecting the climate. And Greenpeace, day after
day, tries to call attention to such crimes. It pesters rich, powerful
interests about toxic dumping and outlaw whaling and a hundred other
topics that those interests would rather not be pestered about. The
Miami activists were arrested, spent a weekend in jail, pleaded guilty
and were sentenced to time served. All in a day's work.
But here's where it starts getting weird: More than a year after the
ship boarding, the Justice Department indicted Greenpeace itself.
According to the group's attorneys, it's the first time an organization
has been prosecuted for "the speech-related activities of its
How far did the government have to stretch to make its case? The law it
cited against boarding ships about to enter ports was passed in 1872 and
aimed at the proprietors of boardinghouses who used liquor and
prostitutes to lure crews to their establishments.
The last prosecution under the "sailor-mongering" act took place in
1890. The new case could be like something straight out of "Master and
The matter goes to trial next week in a federal district court in Miami,
and if Greenpeace loses, the organization could be fined $20,000 and
placed on probation. The money's no big deal; outraged supporters would
probably turn such a verdict into a fundraising bonanza. But the
probation would be. The group might well be prevented from engaging in
any acts of civil disobedience for years to come. If it crossed the
line, the group's officers might be jailed and its assets seized. Since
civil disobedience is what Greenpeace does best, the Justice Department
might in effect be shutting the group down.
That would be too bad, and not just for Greenpeace. The potential
precedent here — that the government can choke off protest by shutting
down those who organize it — undermines one of the most important
safety valves of our political life.
During the civil rights era, Southern sheriffs used every law they could
think of to jail protesters — loitering was a favorite charge. Imagine
some group being put on probation because it had helped organize
sit-ins. But even J. Edgar Hoover didn't try to criminalize the NAACP.
As the veteran civil rights campaigner Julian Bond said recently, "If
John Ashcroft had done this in the 1960s, black Americans would not be
voting today, eating at formerly all-white lunch counters, or sitting on
bus front seats."
As is the norm, this attack on political liberties is excused by the
need for "port safety" in the wake of 9/11. But I've watched Greenpeace
for years, and its members are the furthest thing from terrorists;
according to the group, "no Greenpeace activist has ever harmed another
individual," despite a record of direct action dating to its founding.
If port safety truly were the issue, the federal government would have
made far more progress toward inspecting cargo arriving by sea.
Confidence in the vigor of governmental scrutiny was not enhanced when
it managed not to find the Jade's illegal mahogany and let it sail on
from Miami. Two days later it unloaded 70 tons of the wood in
The real threat Greenpeace represents is that its members tell the
truth, and do it obnoxiously, out in public, where it can't be missed.
The Bush administration knows its environmental record is poor, and it
knows that hanging banners matters. (That's why the White House printed
up the "Mission Accomplished" flag for the president's May 1, 2003,
aircraft carrier photo op). To spare itself embarrassment, the
administration is willing to endanger core political freedoms that go
back to the very founding of the republic.
How far back? Dec. 16, 1773, at least, when a crew of patriots disguised
as Mohawks illegally boarded three ships in Boston Harbor and dumped
overboard all the cargo of tea. As the raiders paraded away from the
docks, British Adm. John Montague shouted: "Well, boys, you have had a
fine pleasant evening for your Indian caper, haven't you. But mind, you
have got to pay the fiddler yet."
Now 230 years later, it's Atty. Gen. Ashcroft playing the part of the
British officer, and the words are just as chilling.
Bill McKibben, a scholar in residence at Middlebury College, is the
author of many books on the environment, including "Enough: Staying
Human in an Engineered Age" (Times Books, 2003).
Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times