A bill outlawing many forms of protest employed by the Occupy Wall Street movement has received overwhelming bipartisan support in the House, passed unanimously in the Senate and is now awaiting President Obama’s signature to become law.
The Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011, also known as H.R. 347 and S.1794, cordons off “restricted buildings and grounds” and punishes anyone who unlawfully enters or occupies, disrupts government business within, or impedes access to and from these areas with up to one year imprisonment, a fine or both. In other words, the bill criminalizes sit-ins, “mic checks,” human chains and a number of other forms of non-violent civil disobedience that have been the primary modes of protest for Occupy.
In the context of H.R. 347, “restricted buildings and grounds” refers to the White House, its lawn and any space being visited by someone protected by the Secret Service. Aside from presidents, vice presidents and their families, Secret Service also protects foreign dignitaries in the United States and leading presidential and vice presidential candidates. This expands the types of situations banning Occupy-style protests from all presidential and vice presidential affairs to visits by foreign leaders and most presidential primary events. (Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich are all currently receiving Secret Service protection.)
Additionally, the Secret Service is responsible for the planning and implementation of security for National Special Security Events, or NSSEs, a category of occasions deemed by the Department of Homeland Security to be likely targets of terrorism or other criminal activity. Since May of 1998, when then-President Bill Clinton issued a classified directive devising NSSEs, there have been at least 38 such events. These NSSEs include the subjects of some of the largest demonstrations in recent U.S. history, including the World Trade Organization Meeting in Seattle, the G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh, Republican and Democratic National Conventions, Presidential inaugurations and sporting events like the Super Bowl.
Although H.R. 347’s introduction in January of 2011 predates the rise of Occupy, thereby diminishing the chance that it was concocted specifically to quell Occupy-style protests, it presents another potential tool with which local, state and federal authorities can crack down on demonstrators.
Arvind Dilawar is a writer and editor living in New York.