The criminalization of peaceful protest: on both sides of the atlantic

In April of last year, 12 AIDS activists were arrested in Washington DC and charged with unlawful conduct. The protesters had decided to gather outside House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s office in order to protest against republican cuts to HIV/AIDS funding and ban on syringe exchange funding. Their protest, organized by four advocacy groups, including youth organizations such as Students Global AIDS campaign, was totally peaceful, as they sat on the floor, chanting ‘Budget Cuts Kill! Fight Global AIDS!’.

What was the result of this peaceful protest? The US Capitol Police arrested the activists, forced them to go through drug testing and referred many of them to trial. But what is even more striking is the realization that, while the HIV activists were arrested the same day as Mayor Gray and Council Chairman Brown-who were also protesting against the same Republican Budget Cuts-, Gray and Brown were released on a $50 fine and the activists-who were part of the same protest- were threatened with 6 months in jail and a criminal record.

But, unfortunately, the story does not end here. Among the HIV activists who were arrested, there was one young man, named Antonio Davis, who was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in 2002 and who currently suffers from an additional painful joint disease. Davis was using medical marijuana, prescribed by his doctor, in order to boost his appetite and to counteract the painful side effects caused by his heavy HIV/AIDS medication. Despite the fact that Davis presented medical evidence to the authorities, which was certifying that drug use was necessary for his health condition, he remained obliged to go through multiple drug tests, repeated community service and many court appearances. “I’ve been prescribed medical marijuana because it’s the only the thing that helps me in my condition. I do not use marijuana as a substance to get high” he said.

Davis wanted the charges to be dropped and to that end he stopped using his medical marihuana-his appetite stimulant- at some point, thinking that in this way he would test negative for drugs. This decision seriously affected his health, as he lost 20 pounds in the last two months. He also had to travel back and forth between Philadelphia and the District five times for hearings. On the top of that, he is worried that a conviction would threaten his career as a paralegal. Despite his fight against this unreasonable prosecution, Antonio Davis’s case, in a very strange way, is currently set to go to trial in May.

This cruel and inhumane treatment of an activist who suffers from two diseases and fights for his rights in a democratic state cannot but make me wonder about the meaning and application of democratic principles in modern societies. Can the right to protest, expression and freedom of speech lead someone to legal prosecution, arrests and stigma? Until now, causing harm through committing different types of crimes was a reasonable cause for someone to be arrested and convicted. On the contrary, sitting in a room and protesting peacefully while claiming your rights was never a crime.

What is a cause for alarm, is that these episodes are not an exception to the rule, but are widespread and common not only across the US, but in the UK as well. For instance, the case of the Fortnum & Mason protesters in London last March attracted a lot of attention, and great public indignation was the result of an unfair verdict and prosecution, which breached fundamental human rights. A number of protesters were arrested and charged with a criminal trespass because of their peaceful protest in front of the big department store Fortnum and Mason in Piccadilly. According to the prosecutors, the 10 protesters, who were campaigning against spending cuts, were intimidating some of the big store’s customers, by carrying leaflets and aggressive material. The intimidation story was a dubious one, since there was no evidence that any customer was threatened by their presence.

The issue, the conclusion and the essence of this story, are that some people who were protesting peacefully, without causing any harm or threatening violence against anyone, were considered criminals who deserved a trial! And this case is followed by many others in the US and Europe, which is a cause for significant alarm regarding the importance and respect of the fundamental human rights in western democracies. The right to protest which stems from the freedom of conscience is one of the most meaningful and important freedoms established throughout so many centuries of fights and sacrifices. Would it be too much to say that western modern democracies should redefine their priorities and make a more humane and fair political turn?

The prosecution of the 12 activists in the US and particularly the prosecution of Antonio Davis, as well as the arrest of the peaceful protesters in the UK are wholly irrational, inhumane, can be considered as a breach of basic human rights and sadly show that the essence of democracy and humanity can sometimes be seriously distorted and misinterpreted in the world we live in.

I call on all the advocacy and human rights organisations in the US, on the world of activists and on every individual who is angry about this incident, to campaign and fight against the unfair trial of Antonio Davis and the rest of his group which is scheduled to take place in May. I sincerely hope that massive efforts and the exercise of pressure to the government will impede this trial from happening. Even the efforts will be a proof that democracy still survives and tries to regain its place in the world. As Erich Fromm said ‘Human history begins with man’s act of disobedience which is at the very same time the beginning of his freedom and development of his reason’.

This article was published at IARS 99% campaign blog

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This entry was posted in Activism, Criminal Justice, Drug and Health Policy, Opinion piece, Society and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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