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May 2, 2012 at 4:34 PM

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Civil Disagreement: On "anarchists" in ski masks

Civil disagreements, with Lynne Varner and Bruce Ramsey of the Seattle Times editorial board, is an occasional feature of the Ed Cetera blog. Today they ask: Do masked anarchists with sticks have the same right to march in a protest as anyone else?

Lynne Varner, left, and Bruce Ramsey

Bruce Ramsey:Lynne, I'm big on individual rights, but here is where I draw a line. I saw the video of these "anarchists" breaking windows at Niketown. They were the same as the bandanna-disguised "anarchists" I saw on Nov. 30, 1999, at the anti-WTO protests here. I remember those guys, who I saw near the Pike Place Market, walking in a file past a police car with four officers in it. And the cops did nothing, because the "anarchists" were doing nothing. But they were masked, and there had been property destruction all over the downtown by people dressed just that way, and I thought: these guys should be stopped, questioned and taken into custody.

And that's what I thought Monday when I saw pictures of them marching in the parade.

Why? Because they pose a clear and present danger. Because the protest was expected, and property destruction was expected. Enough of the plan had been spread on the Internet in order to get recruits to do it, and to get other people to report on it. And there had been other protests with property destruction--recent ones, in Oakland, and in Portland. There's an M.O.: these guys are all in black, with masks and carrying a heavy stick; they are in a group, and several break off from the group, go and bust up a plate-glass window, and then blend back into the group so that it's difficult to identify who did it.

I suggested the city say, "You can't be in the protest march if you are carrying a weapon and your face is disguised." The Seattle liberal reaction was, "They can't do THAT. That's preventative detention. That's discriminating against people based on the way they're dressed."

Yup. You betcha. But if the way they're dressed and the implements they are carrying, and the historical baggage they carry communicate a clear and present danger, then I'm for it. You don't have to detain them a long time.

"But how do you know they are going to destroy property?" people said.

The first time, you don't know. Maybe not the second time. But suppose their tactic works. Suppose they keep doing it. Suppose they have a march every May 1, and wear black and have masked faces and carry sticks or hammers or implements like that; suppose they bust the windows of Niketown in 2013 and in 2014 and 2015. At what point can you say, "We DO know what you are going to do, and we are not going to let you do it here"?

Lynne Varner:Bruce: Private businesses are free to demand customers wear shoes, jackets or tuxes - depending on the establishment. But people ought not be required to dress a certain way as they navigate public streets. The fact that they're in a pack doesn't change the freedom to dress as one choose.

Some of the farmers who drove tractors into the nation's capitol to protect cuts to crop subsidies carried a pitchfork or other tool to make a dramatic point. Police were wise to wait and see if they committed a crime with said pitchforks rather than confiscating the items up front. And what about supports of the NRA? On the off chance they might shoot someone, should they be told to leave the guns at home? That would leave the pirates at Seafair defenseless, so to speak.

I disagree that even once a group has been identified to use sticks to bash windows, they should lose the right to carry those things. How do you decide who is carrying a stick because they're an anarchist and who is just carrying one to be part of the action? Personal judgement is too subjective.

No matter how much you look like the group that's busting up windows and wreaking havoc, you should have the freedom of movement, dress and speech until you do something wrong. Happy Cinco de Mayo, Bruce.

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