By Tanya Silverman
Protesters in front of Federal Hall in New York City. Photos by Arkady Grunin.
Throughout dozens of American cities, concerned citizens took initiative on their country’s Independence Day to participate in Restore the Fourth, a movement to speak out against the recently-exposed National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance programs.
The NSA was recently revealed to have wide access to the public’s electronic communications and phone records, which many consider a serious threat to their personal security and privacy that inherently rejects the founding principles of the United States.
New York City’s Restore the Fourth protest began with a noon-time rally in Union Square Park. Over the course of the hour, participants summoned towards the southern end of the park, tuning in to speakers who would charismatically stand up for freedom of expression and privacy on the internet, or inform protestors of how to handle police confrontations. Jose LaSalle came to speak on another local legal issue, Stop & Frisk, where police stop and search people without a warrant, another measure by authorities that threatens the Fourth Amendment.
At 1:00, the rally dispersed from the park, elongating into a slow march in the sultry weather, heading south down the Broadway sidewalks. Hundreds marched under a canopy of “Big Brother” and “Protect Privacy” signs.
While signs were a commonly used means to present the multitude of messages — some praising whistleblowers, others scolding politicians — a number of protestors chose to present their stance by means of folding a white cardboard box into the form of a security camera and wearing it as a hat, marking their headgear with “NSA” and other anti-surveillance prose.
Eve, 45, who had made her way over from New Jersey, sported such a hat, as did her visiting teenage niece.
“I studied history, and the way that this country is set up, is that we watch the government, and we in the private sector are supposed to be private,” states Eve. “We are supposed to be watching them. They are not supposed to be watching us.”
Alex Vasquez, 24, had come over from Brooklyn, also marched with a camera hat, in order to show solidarity with Americans, and people worldwide, who are tired of having their rights trampled on.
“I hoped, as most of the people in this country did, that with Obama’s administration, we’d have more transparency. As he said it, more honesty and hope,” he reflects. “But those are just taglines. It’s all the same, like the Who song [‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’]: ‘Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.’”
Downward through the narrow sidewalks of SoHo, past retail stores, snacking stands and leisurely shoppers, the march held strong as it continued into the wider sidewalks of the Financial District. Office workers were off for the national holiday, but tourists were plentiful, often in interest or awe at physically witnessing the march. In fact, one stalled tour guide paused her walking group as the march was going past, using it as a cue to announce, “This is a great New York experience, everybody!”
Cutting off Broadway, the march continued through the smaller streets and ultimately culminated in front of Federal Hall. It was a strategically advantageous location, as the marchers stationed themselves along the outdoor staircase to chant, and the speakers and organizers performed a political skit on the ground level. Federal Hall also served as a symbolic destination: the original building was where the Bill of Rights was signed.
Although Edward Snowden, the former Booz Allen Hamilton security technologist whose disclosures revealed many unknown truths about NSA surveillance on the public, was a significant element of the protest and a known component of why some participants were present, he was not the focus of the movement.
“We want to make a very clear separation between the issues that are going on between Mr. Snowden, and the larger policy debates around the right balance between surveillance and the rights of Americans,” says Ben Dorenberg, NYC Restore the Fourth Co-Organizer.
In addition, Dorenberg stresses that this grassroots, social-media heavy movement is not violent, as physical force is not the right way to speak out against surveillance. Restore the Fourth is also non-partisan.
“It’s so difficult to find bi-partisan and non-partisan issues within the United States. For this one, you have these unconstitutional policies, both under Republican leadership, with President Bush, and under Democratic leadership, with President Obama,” examines Dorenberg. “Not only are these policies being put forward by members of both parties, but members of both parties also oppose these policies.”
Restore the Fourth organizers acknowledged that all kinds could join the cause. Naturally, they did; some chanted in favor of Snowden, others defaced portraits of Obama, and one man from Queens even held a sign that said “Vegans for the Fourth.”
Nevertheless, the protestors made their way out in many different states, all united in a goal to retain their constitutional freedoms, historic civil rights that were written centuries ago yet threatened by today’s government armed with modern technology.