home North America, Politics, Science & Technology What Eliot Madison’s arrest means for leftists on Twitter and beyond

What Eliot Madison’s arrest means for leftists on Twitter and beyond

Though #iranelection no longer tops the Trending Topics sidebar on Twitter, a quick search will show you that the struggle goes on in Iran, and that Twitter is still one of the tools used by protesters to organize their resistance to the Ahmadinejad government.

At the height of the protests, when all net-savvy eyes as well as the major networks seemed turned toward Iran, the United States State Department even asked Twitter to shift its scheduled maintenance outage to a time that would have less impact on those organizing against the election they called rigged. President Barack Obama spoke out about the right to assembly and free speech as not just rights recognized by the U.S. but as universal human rights.

I wrote at the time:

Most of us in the States don’t really know what the Iranian people are protesting about, though. And perhaps we don’t have to know. Our willingness to support a public protest that would, without a doubt, be written off in this country as the work of “professional protesters,” “troublemakers” or “fringe elements” without even knowing what it’s about speaks volumes. Does it mean that we’re truly committed to democracy?

We got our answer last week when activist Eliot Madison was arrested during the G-20 protests in Pittsburgh for using Twitter to warn protesters of police actions. He is being charged with “hindering apprehension or prosecution, criminal use of a communication facility, and possession of instruments of crime.” The instruments of crime, in this case, presumably a computer with Internet access.

Madison’s attorney, Martin Stolar, told Democracy Now!:

Essentially, what Elliot is charged with is using the computer or the cell phone to put up an announcement that said that the police had issued an order to disperse. Having done that and having informed people that the police had issued the order, then it is claimed that that announcement hindered prosecution somehow by, I guess, having people avoid being arrested. It would seem to me that that is something that provides some benefit to the police department, in terms of saving them the expenditure of resources in processing people. But they’ve decided to criminalize that communication, or at least in their complaint that’s what they say, that the communication that said, “Hey, there’s been a dispersal order; everybody be aware of it,” somehow turns into a crime of hindering prosecution. The communication facility then, the cell phone or the computer that was used to post that message, becomes an instrument of the crime, and the use of that mass communication facility becomes, they claim under Pennsylvania law, a third crime.

He was arrested on the very first day of the protests, before much had happened, which raises interesting questions of prior restraint on speech—was he arrested because of what he had already tweeted, or perhaps over information that he might have the ability to provide in the future? This is, of course, conjecture, but it’s worth thinking about, as the Supreme Court has reaffirmed time and again that prior restraints are unconstitutional. One can be punished for certain speech acts after the fact, but it is very rare that a court will support stifling speech before it happens.

Twitter is a useful tool for organizers because it permits one-to-many communication, and provides an open network for people to sign on to. The public nature of it, as we saw in Iran and now here, also allows authorities to track people’s statements. Theoretically, this isn’t a problem: speech, especially political speech, is supposed to be protected. Yet we’ve seen infringements into private speech with PATRIOT act and FISA provisions that allowed roving phone wiretaps and searches with only the barest justification, so even there one cannot be certain of privacy—activists might as well take their messages to a public network like Twitter.

With the tea party and 9/12 protests this year, we saw a first for street protest in this country: a corporate news network, FOX, publicly advocating for dissenters to take action. Suddenly, dissent is a commodity that FOX can sell—it can position itself as some sort of outsider and co-opt genuine anger among the people, deflecting that anger onto the President. Even when protesters turned up with loaded weapons at Obama’s rallies, anti-health care websites weren’t taken down and though a Facebook poll asking if Obama should be killed was removed, so far no arrests have been reported.

While the tea party protests have been legitimized by FOX and Iranian protests were supported by a full spectrum of American politicians and media outlets, anti-globalization, pro-peace, and environmentalist protests—protest from the left, which by and large supported now-president Obama– are still criminalized. The question of why protesters carrying weapons are considered less dangerous than protesters calling for peace in Iraq and Afghanistan goes hand in hand with the question of why giving protesters directions on avoiding areas where police were telling people to disperse is criminal, while advocating the assassination of the president is allowed.

The extreme right sees no difference between the protesters at the G-20 and the Obama administration, just as it sees no difference between “socialized medicine” (single-payer health care) and the conservative bill that is likely to actually make it out of the Senate. Yet the Obama administration does its best to dissociate itself from leftist protesters, and appears to be allowing the same type of police action at public protests that the Bush administration, famous for its “free speech zones,” had.

In the end, this is why Iranian protests, supported by both Republican and Democratic politicians, gained wide support, and why the right-wing protests are plastered all over the media (taking its cues from FOX). The left ignores and avoids its base, discounts the value of collective action and public protest, while the right embraces its own base, and both Democrats and Republicans agree that Ahmadinejad is a threat.

We’ve learned a few lessons from this summer’s protests. We learned from Iran that Americans were willing to embrace a protest movement half a world away more willingly than they would a homegrown protest, and we learned from the tea parties and 9/12 protests that if you want media attention, it helps to have a corporate sponsor. More importantly, though, we should learn from the G-20 protests and Eliot Madison’s arrest that our government does not place the same value on free speech and assembly in this country that it does in countries whose regimes we officially oppose—and even in this country, some dissenters simply don’t count.

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Sarah Jaffe

Sarah Jaffe is former deputy editor of GlobalComment. She's interested in politics and pop culture, and has a special place in her heart for comics.