Freedom of Speech

May 2, 2012; Source: Creative Loafing

Notwithstanding the infiltrators of the otherwise peaceful Occupy movement who seem intent on provoking police clashes by carrying out sporadic vandalism, there is a lot of nonviolent creative protest in the planned protests at various corporate shareholder meetings, some of it with elements of humor to it—as long as you aren’t a part of the targeted corporations. As a lead-up to the planned protests in Charlotte, N.C. at the shareholder meetings of Duke Energy this week and the Bank of America next week, five members of the Rainforest Action Network somehow got into the Bank of America Stadium, home of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers, and draped a 70-foot by 25-foot banner off the top describing BofA as the “Bank of Coal” due to its purported $6.7 billion investment in the coal industry. Tongue in cheek, the Rainforest Action Network press release described the action as taking their “message to extraordinary heights because of the risk that coal poses to our health and our climate.”

Charlotte’s city fathers aren’t quite into the humor of the protest and have announced a preemptive crackdown on the protests, drawing on rules that were developed for the upcoming Democratic National Convention, where protests are all but guaranteed. The City Council passed new security rules for “extraordinary events” that would attract large crowds, like the Food Lion Speed Street event scheduled for later this month or the Democratic National Convention, scheduled for September 3-7; the latter will include events at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, the Bank of America Stadium, and other large venues. Recently, Charlotte City Manager Curt Waldon determined that the Duke Energy and Bank of America shareholder meetings would also be classified as “extraordinary events.”

For the protesters, the new rules take a new tack on civil rights and nonviolent protest. The January 23 City Council action led to the removal of Occupy Charlotte tents from the front of City Hall, a ban on camping overnight on city property in general, and new rules allowing officials during “extraordinary” events to search backpacks, briefcases, messenger bags, and carry-on luggage (like wheeled briefcases). The justification for such measures is apparently based on the idea that there might be intent to conceal weapons, although how the police might know about such intent is unclear. Grounds for potential immediate arrest are possession of spray paint, hammers, crowbars, utility knives, padlocks, lumber, and permanent markers.

The ACLU of North Carolina is not happy with what its legal director, Katy Parker, calls the “unlimited discretion” accorded the city manager over nonviolent protests and civil rights. Parker suggests that the law “could really chill free speech.”

Presumably, the Rainforest Action Network banner people have run afoul of the “extraordinary events” law. The Charlotte Business Journal notes that the city is pointing to the erection of 20-foot tripods by Greenpeace activists at last year’s Duke Energy protests as one of the inspirations for the “extraordinary events” law.

Are this year’s Duke Energy and BofA protests so different from the past to warrant the extraordinary latitude given to police? Protests against BofA on coal have been common, such as a November protest by anti-coal activists resulting in eight arrests or a past protest with protesters wearing Santa Claus suits carrying stockings full of coal. However, a Charlotte Business Journal editor described last year’s BofA shareholder meeting as “‘mostly quiet’ with a small but peaceful crowd outside.”

Much of the modern nonprofit sector has roots in the civil rights movement. Many nonprofits are not shy about advocacy and, if required, nonviolent direct action protest. Does Charlotte’s “extraordinary events” ordinance go beyond the pale or is it necessitated by the different scale and emotion of the protests slated for the Bank of America’s shareholders meeting next week?—Rick Cohen