Nancy Pelosi's war against free speech and assembly

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Two weeks after celebrating the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., Congresswoman and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called for the FBI to investigate peaceful protestors demanding a ceasefire in Gaza, accusing them of collusion with Russia in an interview with CNN.

The next day, exhibiting a similar hysteria, Pelosi chided activists from CODEPINK, a feminist grassroots organization founded in 2002, shouting, “Go back to China where your headquarters is!”

The demand for a ceasefire is growing across the nation, as one of the most severe humanitarian and human rights catastrophes unfolds, with more than 25,000 people dead, 65,000 wounded and 1.9 million people displaced with limited access to food, water, medicine, treatment, shelters and basic necessities for survival.

In light of horrifying and well-documented accounts of neutral observers, it is no surprise that the International Court of Justice issued an order last week, finding plausible claims of genocide and ordering Israel to stop committing genocidal acts in Gaza, including the indiscriminate killing of civilians and preventing the flow of humanitarian aid.

According to last month’s polling data collected by Data for Progress, an overwhelming majority of Democrats — nearly 80 percent — support a permanent ceasefire in Gaza. Both the Texas and Arizona Democratic Parties have called for a permanent ceasefire.

A coalition continues to build across the spectrum of labor, anti-war, humanitarian and religious groups, with growing momentum joining calls for an immediate and permanent ceasefire.

Pelosi’s claim that protestors demanding a ceasefire are somehow nebulously connected to Vladimir Putin and should be criminally investigated by the FBI is not only short-sighted politically, but also creates a chilling effect on protected speech and assembly. This flippant and misleading conflation places advocates and activists directly under threat of surveillance simply for using their First Amendment rights to speech, assembly, and expression.

Curtailing legitimate political activism and engagement that challenges the government is not new for the FBI. The 1950’s era FBI counterintelligence program, COINTELPRO, was designed to disrupt, discredit and defame political dissidents in both the civil rights and anti-war movements. Martin Luther King himself was targeted under this program, and even encouraged by the FBI to commit suicide.

While COINTELPRO is widely viewed as an illegal encroachment on activities protected by the First Amendment, the same tactics continue to be employed by the FBI. In the post-9/11 hysteria, the FBI adopted a “preventative” policing model, premised on a radicalization thesis placing the Arab and Muslim community in the constant crosshairs of law enforcement, based on factors such as racial identity, religious practice, and political beliefs.

Put differently, the more an individual publicly practiced tenets of Islam and held political beliefs disfavoring American military invasions in the Middle East, the more likely that person was to commit a terrorist act, necessitating pre-emptive surveillance.

The FBI, utilizing its army of 15,000 informants, managed to infiltrate mosques, Arab and Muslim community centers, and the like, to goad some of the most intellectually, emotionally and financially malleable individuals in these marginalized communities into fake terrorist plots. The domestic surveillance and ensuing prosecutions reveal a harrowing trend of political and identity-based prosecutions.

More recently, some of these manufactured cases have been overturned after the fog of the post-9/11 hysteria has lifted. Just this month, U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon ordered the release of the last of the Newburgh Four from federal custody. In a rare judicial rebuke of the FBI’s conduct, she stated: “The FBI invented the conspiracy; identified the targets; manufactured the ordnance; federalized what would otherwise have been a state crime by driving three of the four men into Connecticut…and picked the day for the ‘mission.’”

Sadly, for each manufactured case that has been overturned, hundreds still exist. The same FBI infiltration tactics continue to target the racial and environmental justice movements, and reports continue to emerge from local communities showing a disturbing uptick of FBI interrogation and surveillance of Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim communities.

Domestically, people of conscience must continue to feel free to, at a minimum, speak out against the atrocities or express solidarity with the Palestinian people without fear of government-sanctioned retaliation. Free speech and assembly are fundamental to our Constitution and to a democratic government.

Pelosi should issue a public apology for her comment and commit to supporting a robust marketplace of ideas, even ideas she does not endorse. Otherwise, her threats to use the FBI to criminalize free speech demonstrate that her commitment to the First Amendment is limited to those who share her political philosophy.

Huma Yasin is a criminal defense attorney, former public defender, author of the forthcoming book Conspiracy: The True Story of the Fort Dix Five.

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