By Olivia Lennox
The right to free speech and the right to free assembly are protected constitutional rights. However, that does not mean that people cannot be arrested while attempting to exercise them. The current Occupy protests in New York, New Hampshire and cities all over the US and the world have brought this into focus for many. In January, Occupy New Hampshire is planning an Occupy the New Hampshire Primary event. Many other direct action protests, some associated with the Occupy movement and others not, take place regularly.
However, mass action is not without its risks to participants. As we saw recently at the Occupy Wall Street protest, even a Bishop can be arrested. If you're planning to take part in any kind of mass action, make sure you understand your rights and how to protect them. Here's what to do and what to remember if you come into contact with law enforcement agents during the course of peaceful protest action.
Keep calm, co-operate and don't run away. As far as the police are concerned, they are doing their job. An aggressive response may aggravate the situation from a simple ID check to an arrest.
You are legally required to show police your ID if they have reason to believe that you are involved in criminal activity. You may well know that you are not involved in such activity, but you face the possibility of arrest if you refuse to show your ID.
If a police officer wants to search you, then then can only do so with your consent. If there is no reason why they should need to search you, don't consent to a search. If they believe you may have a weapon, then they can pat your clothes down, but they cannot search further unless you agree to allow them to do so. Tell them clearly that you do not consent to a search.
Find out if you are under arrest by asking the police officer clearly and calmly if you are. If you are not, then you have the right to leave. If you are under arrest, then the police officer must tell you what you are under arrest for. At a protest, the most likely arrest is for disorderly conduct - things like loitering, obstruction the traffic or failure to disperse when asked. You cannot be arrested just for being on a protest, but police will sometimes make 'strategic' arrests to ensure that they are in control of the protest. The larger the protest, the higher the chance that arrests will occur.
If you are arrested, keep calm and ask why you are being arrested: you have a right to know what you are being arrested for. Never try to run or resist arrest: this may become evidence against you once you are in court. Remember that you have the right to remain silent. If you choose to exercise this right (and it is advisable to do so), then make it clear that you are doing so. Then ask for a lawyer, as you have the right to. Talk to them before you say anything to the police. Never sign or say anything until you have consulted your lawyer.
If you believe that you or anyone else has been mistreated by the police during a protest, then you have the right to complain. While on the scene, you should make a verbal complaint. Take the names and numbers of the officers concerned, and follow these up with a formal complaint after the event.
Remember that while you have the right to free assembly and to free speech, these rights are limited. You should seek to defend these rights, but not put yourself or others in danger. Laws against inciting a riot, unlawful assembly, disturbing the peace and others work to create a legal 'grey area' around the first amendment. While you may believe that you should have the absolute right to protest, there are a number of laws which can be used to curtail that absolute right. Remember to conduct yourself peacefully, co-operating physically while using the law to resist verbally. You have rights and they need to be exercised, but you are unlikely to be able to do so effectively if you do not act calmly and positively.
Olivia Lennox joined showed her solidarity in "civil disobedience" since she was a teenager. While the world worries about 0% overdraft accounts and consumerism, she seeks to educate activists on the law they don't want you to know.