Instead of getting drunk and grilling on a roof somewhere, several hundred New Yorkers chose to spend their Fourth of July protesting the establishment of the surveillance state that, as we all know by now thanks to leaker-turned-international-fugitive Edward Snowden, has the ability and authority to monitor everything anyone does online. The New York rally, along with dozens of others across the country, was organized by a group called Restore the Fourth that wants to draw attention to the domestic spying operations carried out by the NSA that many say are in gross violation of the Fourth Amendment (that’s the one that protects you against “unreasonable search and seizure”).
The protesters gathered in Union Square around noon and embarked an hour lateron a peaceful march to Federal Hall, where the Bill of Rights was dreamed up nearly 224 years ago. Despite the sweltering heat, the demonstrators remained upbeat during the two-mile trek, chanting slogans like, “Stop the surveillance, restore the Fourth Amendment!” and, “Hey, hey NSA, stop the spying, go away!”
The march ended on the stairs of Federal Hall, where, one person took out his iPhone and read the Fourth Amendment aloud and perpetual protester Reverend Billy Talen led a skit that dramatized President Obama and President George W. Bush spying on and arresting ordinary citizens. Everyone in attendance vowed to continue the fight to protect civil liberties, and when Ben Doernberg, who led the NYC march, said his last words and people began to disperse, a man in the crowd yelled at the top of his lungs:
“Snowden is a hero! Snowden is a patriot!”
A final chant ensued:
“Snowden is me, Snowden is you, if they arrest Snowden, we know what to do!”
Afterward, I talked to Ben about how the protest came together and what the organization’s future goals were.
VICE: What is Restore the Fourth?
Ben Doernberg: Restore the Fourth is a grassroots, non-partisan movement that has been organized over just the last few weeks to oppose the unconstitutional, sweeping surveillance policies that we found out the NSA is pursuing. Essentially, what we were about today was turning out and showing that people do care about their constitutional rights, and they’re willing to take a stand. I mean, this is a tough day, right? It’s a holiday, it’s really hot, but people care.
And why should people care?
People should care because this is a constitutional right, and when the American people don’t stand up for constitutional rights, we’ve seen the direction that that goes in—whether its McCarthyism, whether it’s the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II in, essentially, prison camps. When there’s pressure to take away liberties for security, it doesn’t work, and if people don’t push back, we end up with some of the worst things in American history happening. It’s really important to take a stand as soon as possible to kind of reverse the tide. And I think we’re starting to see that.
There’s a letter written to the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, by 26 senators, demanding an explanation on what’s going on. So you are starting to see a groundswell.
Do you think that Americans generally are OK with these NSA spying programs? Polls on the subject have said different things.
What you see with the polling is, depending on how you ask the question, you get different answers. What that says to people who have experience with polling is that people don’t know. People haven’t made up their minds yet. Maybe 20 percent [of Americans] feel strongly that [the spying programs are] a great idea, about 45 percent are really strongly against it, and then there are about 30 percent in the middle who aren’t quite sure yet. I think that’s where a movement like Restore the Fourth comes in—we’re hoping to convince that 30 percent that our constitutional rights are worth fighting for.
What is Restore the Fourth demanding?
Our specific demands are, firstly, for a congressional investigation, a special committee to investigate what these [NSA] policies are and what information [the government] thinks it’s entitled to have about Americans. We don’t think that would compromise national security at all. Al Qaeda already knows they’re being watched—the question is, how is the NSA watching the rest of us? And that would follow in the steps of the Church Committee, a committee in the 1970s formed by the Senate to investigate the abuses under Nixon and under J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. The second demand is to reform the laws to make them constitutional,and make them explicitly prohibit blanket surveillance without probable cause. That would include section 215 of the Patriot Act, section 702 of FISA, and any other relevant statutes.
And then, finally, we’re calling for James Clapper to resign for lying to Congress when he said that the NSA does not wittingly collect information on millions of Americans, which we now know is a straight-out lie. He was warned about that question in advance, and still chose to give a false answer. So we believe that he needs to resign.
It seems like a lot of people showed up, was the turnout more than you expected? Do you know how many people came out?
I’d love to say a million, but I would guess maybe 800, something like that. I checked with the police, they said maybe 800, but an exact number is hard to know.
The march seemed carefully orchestrated and it went over incredibly smoothly. How much did you coordinate with the police?
We talked to them a little bit in advance. Next time we’re going to try to get a permit and try to have amplified speakers and everything. For this march, we basically just kept them up to date, made a few changes in the route as we went along to deal with traffic and such things, but they were actually extremely helpful in working with us and they let us come here. We were worried we wouldn’t be able to get to Federal Hall, but everything went smoother than I ever could have imagined.
When will the next event be, and what form will it take?
The next event that we’re planning is going to be on August 4, and like I said, that’s going to be a permitted event. And we’re going to try to essentially bring together all the different groups and make a really broad coalition with everyone who has these Fourth Amendment concerns. Exactly what form that event will take, we’re not sure yet, but as we saw today there are probably 800 people who are going to sign up for a mailing list for the next event, so I’m pretty optimistic.
More on the surveillance state and the NSA: