CIVICUS

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Last updated on 18.03.2020 at 18:20

The Civic Space Developments

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Unprecedented executive action and rhetoric harm press freedom in the U.S.

Unprecedented executive action and rhetoric harm press freedom in the U.S.

On 27th January 2020, the State Department barred an NPR reporter from accompanying Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on an official trip, allegedly in retaliation for a dispute between Pompeo and another NPR reporter. NPR’s Michele Kelemen was removed from the list of reporters allowed to fly with Pompeo on a trip to Eastern Europe, only days after the secretary reportedly swore and yelled at another NPR reporter for asking questions about Ukraine.

Expression

On 27th January 2020, the State Department barred an NPR reporter from accompanying Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on an official trip, allegedly in retaliation for a dispute between Pompeo and another NPR reporter. NPR’s Michele Kelemen was removed from the list of reporters allowed to fly with Pompeo on a trip to Eastern Europe, only days after the secretary reportedly swore and yelled at another NPR reporter for asking questions about Ukraine. “Retaliation against journalists flies in the face of the values and freedoms this country stands for, a country these officials have taken an oath to faithfully represent,” said Dokhi Fassihian, Executive Director of Reporters Without Borders USA.

On 13th December 2020, the wife of a county commissioner poured a drink over the head of reporter Casie Bryant, who was covering a county budget meeting for local news website AllOfGeorgia. According to media reports, the journalist was sitting at the conference table when Abbey Winters, wife of Chattooga County Sole Commissioner Jason Winters, poured a soda on her head that soaked her hair, clothes and electronic equipment. Winters "said something to the effect of the victim 'deserved it'," according to the incident report from the Summerville Police Department. She was charged with simple battery and disorderly conduct.

On 11th February 2020, photojournalist Amr Alfiky was detained while documenting an arrest in New York City. While the NY police reportedly claimed that Alfiky refused to comply with repeated requests to step back, a video from the incident shows Alfiky telling officers that he was a journalist as the officers push him towards a law enforcement vehicle. In the video, the reporter offers to show his press pass as more officers arrive, then tells the two cops, “I did not refuse. I did not refuse.” Alfiky, whose press credentials were taken from him by police during the incident and later returned, was charged with disorderly conduct and could face a fine of up to $250 and up to 15 days in prison.

On 20th January 2020, a California business owner attacked several journalists who were attempting to question him about allegations that he had engaged in inappropriate behaviour on the street in front of his store. The reporters claim that Peter Carzis grabbed and shoved Univision’s Claudia Buccio while she was filming outside his store and smashed her camera on the ground. KUSI’s Dan Plante was subsequently attacked by Carzis. “The first person he went after when he came out blazing was a young woman from Univision, and he pushed her up against the wall and he took her camera and he threw it in the street and broke it into a hundred pieces,” Plante said. Videos from the incident appear to show Carzis pushing cameramen filming outside his store, attempting to take their mobile phones and push their cameras away. Carzis was arrested and charged with misdemeanour battery and felony vandalism.

Senators and free press advocates condemned the unprecedented restrictions placed on journalists covering the Senate impeachment trial of president Trump. The new rules included prohibiting reporters from walking through the halls of Congress to ask senators questions and preventing reporters from bringing electronic devices into the Senate chamber. Others required journalists to pass through a second security screening inside the Senate and forced them into pens and roped-off lines so they could not access senators. “These restrictions are antithetical to a free press, good governance and the ability of the public to be fully informed about what we as elected leaders do in their name,” Sen. Martin Henrich wrote in a letter to the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms, Michael Stenger.

Mirroring president Trump’s public vilification of the media, on 29th January 2020 a state lawmaker in Tennessee filed a resolution declaring CNN and The Washington Post as “fake news”. The resolution, introduced by Tennessee State Rep. Micah Van Huss, condemns the media outlets for “denigrating our citizens and implying that they are weak-minded followers instead of people exercising their rights that our veterans paid for with their blood.”

Association

On 6th February 2020, the United States House of Representatives passed a bill that would make it easier for workers to form unions and bargain for higher wages and better working conditions. The “Protecting the Right to Organize” (PRO Act) bill would allow more workers to conduct organising campaigns and would add penalties for companies that violate workers’ rights. The act would also weaken so-called “right-to-work” laws that allow employees to avoid participating in or paying dues to unions that represent workers at their places of employment. However, the measure is unlikely to be voted on by the Senate.

Peaceful Assembly

Protests in Puerto Rico

On 23rd January 2020, anti-riot police fired tear gas at protesters who had gathered outside the governor's mansion in San Juan, Puerto Rico, to demand Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced’s resignation. According to the Associated Press, a handful of protesters responded to the police intervention by setting a small barricade on fire and breaking nearby windows. Hundreds of people joined the protests, which escalated after the discovery of a warehouse containing unused hurricane relief aid. Many in the crowd waved Puerto Rican flags or banged on pots and pans while chanting for the removal of the governor. “The negligence here is coming from Wanda Vázquez and her government… The people are fed up,” said Carmen Yulín Cruz Soto, the mayor of San Juan.

Two journalists working for WAPA-TV were reportedly attacked while covering the demonstration in the evening. Reporter Kefrén Velázquez and photojournalist Luis Ojeda stated that, after police used tear gas on the crowd, a handful of people threw stones at them and set their work van on fire before police officers could intervene. Ojeda was also attacked by someone carrying a baseball bat or piece of wood and is recuperating.

Surveillance of protesters

On 21st December 2019, NBC news reported that University of North Carolina campus police used tracking technology to monitor students attending an anti-racism protest. "I'm sure you're already tracking, but wanted to make sure," an FBI agent asked the chief of UNC campus police in an email sent one day after a white supremacist killed a protestor at a rally at another university in Charlottesville in August 2017. Law enforcement used tracking technology called “geofencing” that pulls information from unsuspecting people’s phones who are in a specific area. Privacy advocates warn that the use of “geofencing” technology without a warrant is akin to a fishing expedition, the kind of search that the Fourth Amendment was intended to prevent.

Protests across the U.S.

On 10th January 2020, actors Joaquin Phoenix and Martin Sheen were among the people arrested at the U.S. Capitol for their participation in Fire Drill Fridays, a weekly protest to raise awareness in Washington, D.C. about the climate crisis. "We have to be sure that the crisis that is climate change remains front and centre like a ticking time bomb," actor Jane Fonda said. In a similar protest, twenty students were arrested on 17th February 2020 for participating in a protest at the U.S. Capitol Building demanding that Congress pass legislation to address the climate crisis. Video of the protest shows students holding signs and chanting, "Which side are you on?"

On 4th January 2020, thousands of people rallied in dozens of cities to say no to war with Iran and to condemn the assassination of Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani. Act Now to Stop War and End Racism, an anti-war coalition that helped organise the events, said on its website that more than 80 actions took place across the country. In Pittsburgh, about 100 people gathered at a downtown plaza to call for reducing tensions with Iran. The protest was peaceful until clashes erupted between a handful of counter-protestors and the anti-war crowd. Police quickly intervened and no one was arrested.

On 13th January 2020, thousands of Florida teachers, parents and their supporters rallied in Tallahassee to call for better pay and educational reforms. Many of the participants dressed in red and some carried signs with messages like, “I shouldn’t have to marry a sugar daddy to teach,” as they marched from a prominent local college to the state capital building. Inspired by teacher strikes in other states that have produced reforms, the teachers are calling on state legislators to adopt a 10% raise for all teachers and other school staff.

On 8th December 2020, graduate student workers at the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC) went on strike to demand better salaries and vowed to withhold final grades unless the administration meets their demands. The “Pay Us More UCSC” movement is demanding a $1,412 a month wage increase as a cost of living adjustment. UAW 2865, the union that represents over 19,000 student employees at UC schools, did not authorise the strike, but many graduate students and supporters from other schools have held multiple protests on campus to draw attention to their low pay and the rising cost of living in the area.

A three-day protest by eastern Kentucky coal miners over unpaid wages ended on 15th January 2020, according to media reports. Miners with Quest Energy, who blocked a railroad track, reportedly ended their blockade after receiving payment for overtime pay, vacation days and all other money owed to them for work they had already completed. The miners’ protest had drawn national attention and the state’s governor has vowed to ensure mining companies meet their obligations in the future. “I hated that it had to happen like it did, but enough is enough in my book,” one of the striking miners said. “When you get to the point when you have to scrape change to buy anything, a gallon of milk or whatever, it’s pretty rough.”

On 20th January 2020, thousands of gun rights activists, many of them armed, gathered in Virginia’s capital to protest against proposed gun control measures which protesters said violate the Second Amendment. “We will not comply”, gun rights activists chanted as they crowded the street in front of Virginia’s state house, where the governor had temporarily banned firearms. “Today at this Capitol, the rights of Virginians to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed and violated,” said one attendee. Days before the rally, three suspected members of a white supremacist group were arrested for allegedly planning an attack at the rally. They face multiple federal charges, including several weapons-related charges.

On 5th February 2020, thousands of protesters gathered across the U.S. following the acquittal by the Senate of president Donald Trump in his impeachment trial. Demonstrators gathered outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., condemning the vote and calling for Trump's removal. They carried signs calling the trial, which had no witnesses, a sham and accusing Senate Republicans of covering up the evidence of the President’s wrongdoing. Protests were held in Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago, and dozens of smaller protests were organised outside of the home offices of Senators who voted for acquittal.

On 14th February 2020, the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples March in Minneapolis drew about 2,000 people to raise awareness about the thousands of American Indigenous women who are killed or go missing each year in the country. Many in the crowd wore red, a colour that symbolises the missing or murdered women. “We needed some empowerment, some strength,” said a protester who drove from Nebraska to take part in the demonstration. Research shows that Indigenous women are victims of violence at much higher rates than other women in the U.S.

On 16th February 2020, at least 30 people in New York city were arrested while protesting the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)’s policies that target undocumented immigrants. Gathering near the New York Public Library, hundreds of people joined the demonstration organised by a group called Close the Camps which defends the ICE’s abolition and criticises companies collaborating with the agency. The protesters face charges of disorderly conduct and civil disobedience.

Peaceful Assembly in USA

Protests – both planned and spontaneous – are an integral part of civic life in the USA. Demonstrations on a wide range of issues take place every day throughout the country and most of them are peaceful and well-policed.

Protests – both planned and spontaneous – are an integral part of civic life in the USA. Demonstrations on a wide range of issues take place every day throughout the country and most of them are peaceful and well-policed. The shooting dead of unarmed black men including Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner, however, sparked a series of nationwide protests against the unlawful use of deadly force by police. Participants in some of those protests were intimidated by police in heavy-duty riot gear with military-grade weapons and equipment. Excessive force was actually used against demonstrators in some instances including the 2011 Occupy Movement and the 2014 Ferguson protests.The latter included the use of tear gas and rubber bullets against demonstrators as well as assaults on journalists by the police. There have been additional concerns regarding the creation of ‘free speech zones’ by local authorities and some universities, where protestors are corralled into defined geographic spaces, often far from the places where they could be seen and heard. While regulations vary by state, in some places protestors are required to secure authorisation for specific forms of demonstration, including where amplification is used or where there will be a disruption to traffic circulation.