It's the STATE, Stupid!

On Monday, August 7th, a judge in Philadelphia reduced the bail of John Sellers from $1 million to $100,000. Although the $1 million dollar figure is usually reserved for the like of serial killers, Sellers had not been accused of murder, rape, or arson. The 33-year old director of the Ruckus Society – which calls Berkeley, California home – had been charged with misdemeanors connected with organizing the R2K protests that paralleled the GOP National Convention in Philadelphia last week. According to the A-Infos [Anarchy Information] News Service, "As of August 7, about 300 [protestors] are still being illegally held and brutalized by the city of Philadelphia, amounting to legal kidnapping of human rights activists." Among them is Terrence McGuckin, an AIDS activist, whose bail had been set at $450,000.

Why set a bail so outrageously high that it crosses over into denial of due process? Police Commissioner of Philadelphia John Timoney explained, "There's a cadre, if you will, of criminal conspirators who are about the business of planning conspiracies to go in and cause mayhem and cause property damage and cause violence in major cities in America that have large conventions…" Timoney's solution is to convert these "conspirators" into "martyrs," into political prisoners oppressed by an unjust and discriminatory system.

A-Infos reported conditions of the imprisoned, "A young man handcuffed crucifixion style to a cell door. The screams and moans of young women echoing through the cell block C. Another young woman dragged naked, bloody through a garbage strewn prison hall. Hunger strikers denied access to water or toilets. Metal handcuffs pounding, smashing the fingers, hand and wrist of prisoners who refuse to be finger printed." According to the Independent Media Center of Philadelphia, "Arrestees have…been held for over 60 hours without arraignment, some without phone calls or contact with their lawyers. Detainees report missing paperwork, and arraignments with incomplete or slipshod records. Philadelphia continues to restrict…lawyers, allowing only a total of three access to all six detention sites."

Meanwhile, the comments of ACLU leader Stefan Presser have enraged those sympathetic the protestors. Stephan claimed that the police "showed enormous restraint" in handling violent protesters. It is too early to know which account is true, especially since they do not directly contradict each other. But the very act of asking the question, "are the Philadelphia police brutes?" injures respect for their authority.

"Questioning authority" is close to an unqualified "good," but there are at least three things about the ongoing debate that make me cringe.

1) Even granting Timoney's assessment that there are professional conspirators who converge on population centers to protest…what is wrong with that? What is wrong with American citizens planning together to express civil rights anywhere within their own borders? The rights of free speech and freedom of assembly are guaranteed by the US Constitution. The Bill of Rights does not specify that you must be a son or resident of Philadelphia in order to assemble or speak freely in that city; you must merely be American – and, perhaps, not even that. The First Amendment – which guarantees not only the right to protest but also the right to assemble – does not recognize city limits. Timoney's objection to "outsiders" would have prohibited "freedom riders" from riding their buses through cities in the South during the u201860s drive for civil rights. It would have barred abolitionists from speaking out against slavery during their lecturing tours in pre-bellum America. Arguably, it could prevent anyone on a lecture tour from criticizing local authorities. By Timoney's logic, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams could have been run out on a rail from his own city, from Philadelphia, where they met to produce the US Constitution.

2) Allow me to grant, strictly for the sake of argument, that the police have a right or duty to remove protestors who are disruptive – e.g. who impede traffic. Even with this assumption, the offenses in Philadelphia were low-grade misdemeanors, not criminal acts that merit denial of due process and the setting of a $1 million bail. At most, the protestors should have incurred a fine or a few days in jail. In the anti-World Bank demonstrations held in Washington, D.C. a few months earlier, the police and court system acted with relative restraint. They held protestors almost in a pro forma manner and released them when the convention was over: that is, when all prospect of disruption had ended. By contrast, Philadelphia continues to imprison peaceful protestors far after any threat of disruption has disappeared. Even granting that the authorities in Philadelphia have a right to keep their city safe, they have crossed the line from protection into punishment: they are now punishing people for expressing their political opinions.

3) I don't want these protestors to become civil rights martyrs because their political opinions constitute one of the greatest threats to liberty, especially to the free market. As a crass oversimplification, the protestors are "anti-globalization," and especially against a global free market. Most of them are not against "the State" because they would use that institution if it furthered their goals.

In an earlier column for, I argued, "Libertarians are in a unique position to counter the anti-capitalist, anti-technology philosophy of the protesters. For one thing, libertarians realize that there are three and not two players on the political scene: anti-capitalists, the State, and free market advocates. They know that an attack on the protesters' goals must not be a defense of the State, the IMF/World Bank [frequent targets of protest] or the police because they all are enemies of individual freedom….[N]o one seems to be arguing for the true benefits of u2018true' globalization – benefits such as the increased standard of living and health. Indeed, no one seems to be defining u2018true' globalization clearly: namely, it is the abolition of all trade barriers and privileges. Arguing from such a definition is the only effective means by which to counter the growing association between globalism and oppression."

I am pleased to be proven wrong on the latter point. A new book effectively presents the huge benefits to mankind offered by all corners of the earth communicating and trading with each other. More importantly, A Future Perfect: The Challenge and Hidden Promise of Globalization by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge (both correspondents for The Economist) explodes the popular myths of the anti-globalization movement. As the book's reviewer Daniel Akst commented, "The spread of information and technology, the movement of goods and ideas and people – all of it is taken for granted, especially by the educationally endowed, who seem to carry around, along with their cell phones and handheld organizers, a burden of guilt that prevents them from defending too loudly the embarrassing state of affairs that has led to their good fortune. Globalization, after all, has a bad name."

It is a name that is being disgraced by both the protestors who oppose it and the police who claim to defend it. To the protestors, I can only shout "It's the STATE, stupid!" – not the free market. To the police, "for the love of liberty, do not turn these people into martyrs for civil rights!" But, then, the police are rarely swayed by arguments for liberty.

August 10, 2000

Wendy McElroy is author of The Reasonable Woman. See more of her work at and at her personal website.

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