Friday, May 28, 2004

Trying to return with some good news, chapter three

On May 19, the Bush administration's attempt to put the hammer to Greenpeace by prosecuting it under a rarely-enforced, 132 year-old law collapsed in complete failure. Judge Adalberto Jordan threw the case out without even the need for Greenpeace to make a defense, ruling that the government had failed to make a case.

The matter arose in February 2002, when Greenpeace volunteers as part of a peaceful protest boarded a cargo ship off the Florida coast that was transporting illegally-harvested mahogany from the Brazilian Amazon. John Ashcan, taking time off from color-coding our civil liberties, ignored those who actually boarded the vessel in favor of charging the entire organization under an 1872 law banning "sailormongering," the practice of having prostitutes board vessels approaching harbor in order to lure sailors off their ships and into brothels. It had previously been invoked exactly twice. The persecution, if successful, could have put the entire organization out of business.
Speaking from the Miami Federal Courthouse, Executive Director John Passacantando said, "America's tradition of free speech won a victory today, but our liberties are still not safe, the Bush administration and its allies seem bent on stifling our tradition of civil protest, a tradition that has made our country stronger throughout our history.

"Greenpeace is grateful to everyone who stood with us, from Al Gore and Julian Bond to the citizens of Miami and people around the world. We will never give up the struggle to protect our forests, our air and oceans, and to build a green and peaceful future."
Greenpeace is not without its problems, common among the so-called "Big Greens," of forgetting its roots, both grass and spiritual, but it still stands as a good example of the power of direct action and retains a valuable role to play. The victory should be celebrated both on civil liberties and environmental grounds.

However, we can't forget that even victories such as these are not unalloyed: Often, the government's purpose is not to win their case (they had to know that was a far-fetched possibility here) but to drain resources and distract attention, to make opposition groups less effective by making them spend their time and energies in legal defenses rather than political battles: a government form of SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, suits filed by corporations to intimidate and financially drain opponents). Until there is some form of redress, some variation of a SLAPP-back (the practice of counter-suing corporations when their SLAPPs failed, as they usually did, which has cut back on their use), until the government can be held accountable for its misuse of courts as a means of squelching opposition, this kind of thing will continue.

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