How to silence peaceful protesters in four easy steps (and how to stop those who try!)

By Daniel Balson, Advocacy Director for Europe and Central Asia

The right to public protest is the lifeblood of a free society. People rely on that right to air their grievances, protest government decisions, challenge official narratives, and make their voices heard. Since the election of President Trump, Americans have found more reason to exercise their right to protest than in recent years. They have taken to the streets to denounce the administration’s treatment of women, African-Americans, Muslims, refugees and migrants, LGBT people, and others. For those outraged about President Trump’s policies, public protest has become a primary avenue to express dissent.

Yet we cannot take our right to demonstrate for granted. In many countries around the world, often considered bastions of freedom, human rights are in retreat. Poland is one such example. A recent report by Amnesty International has shown how, through a series of subtle maneuvers, the government of Poland has been able to undermine activists’ ability to organize and demonstrate.

The Polish government understands it can’t just outright ban demonstrators. Such a ban would not only be in clear violation of Article 57 of the Polish constitution, it would inspire costly international and domestic protest. This is exactly why the policies described in the report are so insidious. Taken separately, they look marginal and relatively inconsequential. A judge replaced here, a permit denied over there. Yet together, these moves represent an authoritarian toolkit, making it more dangerous, costlier, and more complicated to protest than before.

Amnesty International describes four main strategies used by the government of Poland to depress protests. By using violence against demonstrators, placing organizers under surveillance, discriminating against anti-government voices, and weaponizing the judiciary against protestors, the Polish government stacked the deck against its critics. Here’s a more detailed look at these strategies:

The Threat of Violence: “It’s a nice protest you got there. It’d be a shame if … “: In Poland, authorities have ensured that the threat of physical coercion hangs over public demonstrations by government opponents. Demonstrators report being seized by riot control police and shackled in vans for multiple hours without receiving any explanation for their detention. Polish authorities have managed to steer clear of the kinds of massive, overwhelmingly violent crackdowns that drive TV coverage. Still, Amnesty has documented numerous instances of excessive force being directed at protestors in Warsaw and Poznań. These tactics can wear down protesters and have a chilling effect on others who may wish to participate in demonstrations, but may instead think twice.

Surveillance: Every move you make, [the government] will be watching you: Poland, like many governments around the world, grants robust surveillance powers to security services. Until recently, however these powers were reserved for criminal investigations, rather than loosely defined “preventative purposes”. Protest organizers in Poland have quickly learned that the government is watching them. Leaders walking home from protests have reported that they were followed by security officials slowing creeping behind them in unmarked cars. In many cases, the surveillance team made no attempt to mask its presence. Its goal was not to investigate or to prevent a crime but to intimidate and threaten the organizers.

Discrimination: All protests are equal. Some are more equal than others: Polish authorities quickly realized that they can use subtle policies to discriminate between pro and anti-government protestors. As a result, the government has created castes of protestors. Anti-government voices haven’t fared well under this regime. One Polish law, for instance, bans demonstrators from interfering with “cyclical assemblies,” or gatherings organized by the same individuals at the same location multiple times per year. Unsurprisingly, cyclical assembly recognition is often granted by purely political figures (such as regional governors) and for purely political reasons. The result: pro-government voices can monopolize desirable space. Want to protest your government in the city square? Sorry — the “cyclical assembly” has reserved that space. Yes, tomorrow as well. The government will surely provide your demonstration with an alternative area in the suburbs.

Weaponizing the Judiciary: Justice is blind. But for you, it’s also absent: In 2017, the government enacted a series of reforms that put the judiciary under the government’s political control. This strategy has become the one that empowers all others. Judges are more likely to issue criminal sanction, excuse police misbehavior, and authorize surveillance of activists under flimsy pretenses.

The lesson is clear: Governments who wish to suppress protests are unlikely to suppress freedoms and protections but, through a series of measures, simply undermine them and render them meaningless. And this lesson matters well beyond Poland. As activists exchange ideas and strategies so too do governments learn from one another. We’ve already seen some of these strategies put into practice in the U.S. Federal documents have indicated that the FBI and other government agencies have been monitoring Black Lives Matter protests. Amnesty International has documented and vocally condemned authorities’ disproportionately violent reactions to peaceful protests in Standing Rock, North Dakota as well as their use of the judicial system to target journalists covering demonstrations.

There are many ways you can fight back against any attempts to stifle your freedom of expression:

· Familiarize yourself with your rights: Amnesty International has numerous resources to help you understand your rights and know what to do when you peacefully take to the streets.

· Get to know your members of Congress and your state legislators. When they threaten your right to protest, your national and local representatives need to hear from you that your rights are nonnegotiable!

· Take action! Amnesty has many ways you can take action today to make your voice heard and protest human rights for all.

Our leaders need to do their part, too. Congress and the White House must publicly call out Poland for its crackdown on protestors and demonstrators. The government of Poland can’t pretend that it is a bulwark of human rights and freedom while devising new ways to silence protests. If it chooses to do so, American leaders should play no part in the masquerade.