By Tim Cushing
In this time of coronavirus and social unrest, you’d think the government — at all levels — would engage in a little more care not to make either problem worse. Of course they haven’t. Cops are arresting journalists and tear-gassing peaceful protesters as the President himself calls for domestic military action targeting US citizens. Dystopian fiction writers have been put on notice: the usual shit just isn’t going to sell anymore. The ideas you thought wouldn’t sustain suspension of disbelief are swiftly becoming reality.
Stepping into the breach for reasons it will probably never be able to fully explain is the federal government, using nationwide protests as a reason to suspend as many rights as possible until everyone agrees the government is not an oppressive force — even when personified as a white cop strangling a black man to death by putting his knee on his neck.
Good luck with that. The government needs all the goodwill it can collect. It has apparently failed to realize the importance of harvesting goodwill in difficult times. And when the lawsuit inevitably gets filed, it will have to explain why it chose to do this massively stupid thing. Ryan Reilly reports for the Huffington Post about an apparent First/Fourth Amendment double-punch.
Law enforcement agents have seized hundreds of cloth masks that read “Stop killing Black people” and “Defund police” that a Black Lives Matter-affiliated organization sent to cities around the country to protect demonstrators against the spread of COVID-19, a disease that has had a disparate impact on Black communities.
The Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) spent tens of thousands of dollars on the masks they had planned to send all over the country. The first four boxes, each containing 500 masks, were mailed from Oakland, California, and were destined for Washington, St. Louis, New York City and Minneapolis, where on May 25 a white police officer killed George Floyd, a 46-year-old handcuffed Black man, setting off a wave of protests across the country.
Here’s the original post detailing the apparent seizure of free speech d/b/a protective face masks:
This was multiple levels of fucked up, both in terms of what happened and who was involved. It’s not clear which law enforcement agency seized the masks but it all started with the US Postal Service’s “inspection” unit (USPIS), which apparently flagged the items as somehow illegal and/or dangerous.
The masks Rene Quinonez of Oakland’s Movement Ink created never made it any further than the postal depot. The only thing unusual about the face masks — millions of which have traversed the country unmolested in recent months — were the slogans they bore.
Heads up, government agents: slogans printed on face masks are protected speech. And deciding to make off with a citizen’s personal property because you just don’t like what’s printed on it doesn’t just violate their First Amendment rights. It also violates their Fourth Amendment right to be free of unjustified molestation by the government.
“Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech…” And it hasn’t! Which makes this seizure unlawful. Lot of people who swore to uphold the Constitution are now wandering around acting like rights are privileges that can be completely suspended if stuff starts going sideways. Sure, there’s lots of executive power to throw around and everything Congress has handed itself to use during wartime, but civil unrest across the nation isn’t the bar for the suspension of guaranteed rights.
When anti-government demonstrations are widespread, it’s speech the government doesn’t like that needs the most protection. And here, the government (on a number of levels), has failed.
UPDATE: The federal government — acting incredibly strangely — has now released the masks and refunded Movement Ink’s shipping costs. Sounds like the entities involved were hoping no one would talk about this and are trying to fix things on the sly now that this bullshit has been exposed.
An organizer involved in producing the masks, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said they received a call from a USPIS employee on Friday morning, hours after HuffPost’s initial story on the seizure ran. What was strange about the call, the person said, is that they weren’t the person who mailed the boxes or the point of contact.
The organizer who received the call said the USPIS official said there would be a refund for the cost of express shipping since the boxes wouldn’t be arriving on time, which would have allowed them to be used by protesters on Thursday night and this evening.
All’s well that ends well and all that, I guess. But there’s still a civil rights lawsuit in here and Movement Ink should go after the government for its decision to violate multiple rights just because no one involved was willing to end this unconstitutional process before it could cause any harm.