Very soon, a trial will begin in federal district court in Miami in which Attorney General John Ashcrofts Justice Department will try to use an 1872 law in a bid to silence Greenpeace.
This trial stems from an incident more than a year ago when Greenpeace activists attempted to board a cargo ship, The Jade, as it steamed north from Brazil with a cargo of 70 tons of illegally cut mahogany from the Brazilian rainforest.
The activists wanted to string a banner reading: President Bush. Stop Illegal Logging. That, in itself, is nothing unusual for environmental activists.
The Brazilian rainforest is continually being logged, despite treaties and other prohibitions and despite warnings from scientists that the rainforest should be left intact to protect the climate, oxygen supply and numerous exotic species of animal and plant life.
Greenpeace is about publicizing these and other anti-environment acts. The ones who tried to board The Jade were arrested and spent a weekend in jail. They were sentenced to time served. No big deal.
Whats different in this trial is that Mr. Ashcroft is trying to prosecute Greenpeace itself for the activities of some of its members.
To do that, Ashcroft has decided to resurrect the 1872 law barring the boarding of ships about to enter port. According to The Los Angeles Times, that law initially was aimed at boarding house operators who tried to lure ships crews to their businesses with liquor and prostitutes. The law was known as the sailor-mongering act. The last prosecution under this act happened in 1890.
Should Ashcroft succeed with this prosecution, Greenpeace could be fined up to $20,000 and put on probation for a lengthy term, which would effectively silence it and block its activities.
The governments strategy seems to be to silence dissent by shutting down those who organize it. That is a direct threat to the First Amendment rights of all Americans.
Back in the civil rights era in the 1960s, Southern sheriffs used every law they could dredge up to jail protesters. But even the FBI and its boss, J. Edgar Hoover, did not try to prosecute the NAACP
Julian Bond, who was active in civil rights in those turbulent years, said: If John Ashcroft had done this in the 1960s, black Americans would not be voting today, eating at formerly all-white lunch counters, or sitting on bus front seats.
Ashcroft is arguing that this case is a matter of port safety in the wake of 9/11. If that were the case, security at our ports would be much tighter than it is. The Jade sailed right by the government folks and unloaded its mahogany at Charleston, S.C., two days later.
The Los Angeles Times said the real threat to the government from Greenpeace is that its members tell the truth and do it out in public. The paper said Bushs administration is well aware of its abysmal environmental record and it also knows that banners are effective: witness Bushs Mission Accomplished banner when he gave his speech from an aircraft carrier last year.
The Times also charged that Bush and company, for enhancement of their political goals, are willing to jeopardize core values that date back to the founding of the republic.
That refers back to 1773, the famous Boston Tea Party, when tax protestors dressed as native Americans dumped a cargo of British tea into the harbor.
Now 230 years later, John Ashcroft is taking the position of British admiral John Montague, who yelled at the Indians: Well boys, you have had a fine pleasant evening for your Indian caper, havent you? But mind, you have got to pay the fiddler yet.
Ashcrofts actions are equally ominous if not more so.