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When you're freer to move around in Moscow than NYC, that's a problem

There was a fascinating article in the New York Times today about a protest march led by writers -- yes, writers -- in Moscow protesting their freedoms during the re-ascension of president Vladimir Putin. It's important to note that with a tainted election and restrictions on free speech and a free press, Russia is hardly a bastion of freedom and democracy these days. That, of course, was the reason for the march across town.

Given everything that's happened over the last six months, it's interesting what happened when protesters marched in Moscow without a permit.


It was only four days ago when 12 prominent authors, disturbed by the crackdown on dissent that accompanied President Vladimir V. Putin's inauguration, announced an experiment. They called it a "test stroll," which aimed to determine whether it was possible to spend an afternoon walking en masse from one city park to another "without being blocked, beaten, poisoned with gas, detained, arrested or at least subjected to stupid molestation with questions."

No one knew quite what to expect on Sunday. But when the 12 writers left Pushkin Square at lunchtime, they were trailed by a crowd that swelled to an estimated 10,000 people, stopping traffic and filling boulevards for 1.2 miles. Many wore the white ribbons that are a symbol of opposition to Mr. Putin's government. The police did not interfere, although the organizers had not received a permit to march.

Compare that to what happens when thousands of protesters try to march across New York City:

Thousands of protesters converged on Lower Manhattan on Tuesday afternoon in the culmination of May Day demonstrations organized by the Occupy Wall Street movement, resulting in occasionally bloody clashes and the arrests of more than 30 demonstrators.

All the arrests were on disorderly conduct charges, and most were of people who were blocking traffic or resisting arrest, said Paul J. Browne, the chief spokesman for the Police Department. Protesters were arrested near Bryant Park in Midtown, on the Williamsburg Bridge, at a park on the Lower East Side and near Washington Square Park.

Some were busted just for being in the street -- exactly as the marchers in Moscow were:

Near Washington Square Park, demonstrators carrying a banner that read "On Strike" disregarded police warnings to stay on the sidewalk and stepped onto Avenue of the Americas. Several officers tackled and arrested them.

One man who was led away in cuffs had a bloody face.

I think we need to start being honest with ourselves. The "American Exceptionalism" that we once took for granted when it comes to civil liberties is disappearing. The reality is that the picture is mixed. Would I trade the freedoms we have here now for what they have in Moscow day in and day out? Of course not. Bur we could do so, so much better. It's embarassing that the United States is rated so low when it comes to freedom of the press. And when it comes to freedom of assembly, the Occupy protests have helped to show us how far we've fallen. (On some days, below even Moscow).

We should look at police "stop and frisk" policies in the same context. Citizens of big American cities want the same freedom to move freely from place to place that the Moscow protesters wanted. And how is that working out these days? Ask the editorial board of the New York Times.

Young black and Hispanic men continued to be stopped in disproportionate numbers. They are only 4.7 percent of the city's population, yet these males, between the ages of 14 and 24, accounted for 41.6 percent of stops last year. More than half of all stops were conducted because the individual displayed "furtive movements" — which is so vague as to be meaningless.

The data also show that the police are significantly more likely to use force when they stop blacks and Hispanics than when they stop whites. This means minority targets are more likely to be slammed against walls or spread-eagled while officers go through their belongings. Even when victims are unhurt, they are likely to develop a deep and abiding distrust of law enforcement.

Americans aren't greedy when it comes to their civil liberties . But the right to move around peacefully from place to place seems like a bare minimum. That should be a basic human right anywhere in the world -- in Moscow, and even in New York City.