Economic 9-11: The Shrinking of Political Space
Editor's Note: Behind the economic bailout is a looming specter of government as Big 'Banker' Brother, and activists are protesting for fear of further erosion of civil liberties, reports NAM contributor Roberto Lovato.
NEW YORK – Arun Gupta stood between the throngs of tourists and the small army of activists squeezing onto the narrow concrete island occupied largely by the 7,000 pound bronze Wall Street bull and declared, "We're here to say no to the bailout."
Gupta is an editor at the New York Indypendent newspaper whose open letter opposing the Bush administration's $700 billion bailout is largely credited with inspiring the protests on Wall Street in other cities. "But we're also here because, in times of economic decline like ours, the natural inclination of government is to close down political space," he noted.
Gupta, along with a host of other observers from across the political spectrum, believes that the debate about the Bush administration's bailout plan obfuscates another looming threat: how the bailout behind the economic crisis could further erode free speech, the right to protest, the right to privacy – all repressive measures instituted after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
At that time, many believed that the Bush administration was using the symbolism of Ground Zero to narrow political space – curtailing civil liberties – in an effort to silence opposition to the Iraq invasion. Today, Gupta and others believe that the government is preparing for another domestic war, a war on the poor and middle class – the sector of the population that is most affected by today's economic realities – by controlling their economic and political freedom. Gupta fears that the government, as Big 'Banker' Brother, could play the dual roles of financier (who may or may not provide loans to its citizens) and cop (who will quell complaints about any rejections).
Even staunch conservatives with deep roots in Wall Street are alarmed at the possible political effects of the current economic policy. Paul Craig Roberts, former Reagan administration assistant secretary of the U.S. Treasury, who is also a former associate editor of The Wall Street Journal editorial page, sounded an economic and political alarm that echoed in the financial canyons around Wall Street when he wrote a column titled "Has Deregulation Sired Fascism?"
"The real issue is whether we, the people, allow powerful interests to use the economic collapse to create an even more unaccountable executive branch," he said during our interview. "History teaches us that it's easier for government to give us our money back than it is for them to give us back the freedoms and civil liberties government takes."
On Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appeared to share these concerns when she said that the fiscal catastrophe was "a tragedy they [the Bush administration] must have known was coming and were very late in coming to Congress on." Pelosi also stated that the administration sought "an expansive power for the (Treasury) secretary that was almost laughable."
The physical, legal and political space had already been shrinking as a result of government actions in the aftermath of 9-11: public streets severely narrowed by the now ubiquitous steel fencing; decorative bulwarks and defensive walls put up by government and private sector interests; "permanent emergency" laws passed by both Democrats and Republicans; laws like the Patriot Act that criminalize forms of protest that were previously legal and which also unleashed powerful data-mining technology and other unprecedented surveillance powers of local, state and federal government; bipartisan legislation that gives the government the power to break into citizens' homes and conduct secret searches and police raids. Add to this the made-for-TV-ratings arrests carried out against independent journalists like Democracy Now's Amy Goodman while covering the Republican National Convention.
Gupta and others see the potential for the current economic crisis to facilitate government actions like those denounced by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) shortly after 9-11, when they released a report that stated, "The nation's highest-ranking law enforcement officer is using his bully pulpit to shut down dissent and debate."
Located next to the Hudson River and a brisk walk from the bronze bull and Ground Zero, is the ACLU headquarters, born from government threats to civil rights in times of economic crisis. After the economic unrest during and after WWI, the liberal Wilson Administration led several initiatives – including the Espionage Act of 1917, the Sedition Act of 1918 and other laws – to enable the rash of warrantless raids, massive surveillance and widespread criminalization of protest. In response, Roger Nash Baldwin, Jeannette Rankin and other New York activists launched the ACLU in 1920.
Baldwin, Rankin and their peers were fighting to maintain political space in the industrial age. Now Gupta and his fellow activists see themselves as doing the same in the digital age.
"What we're witnessing is an interesting dynamic between the analog and digital worlds in terms of how we combine mobilization with technology," said Gupta. "Email helped spread word of this protest like wildfire. At first I received responses to my open letter from a huge number of activists. But then it kept growing in concentric circles of impact extending to more than 100 cities. That's a lot of political space that would not have been created otherwise – and we need to keep it up if we're going to get out of this crisis."