Another victim of George Floyd’s death: the right to protest
On a night in mid-December 1773, a group of about 60 men who had disguised themselves as Native Americans boarded three merchant ships at a Boston wharf and threw dozens of chests of imported tea into the cold waters and dark – an act of civil disobedience that damaged private property in protest against the government’s fiscal policies.
Today, the Conservatives welcome that moment; in fact, a right-wing faction a few years ago chose the name Tea Party as its own. Yet lawmakers in conservative states across the country have behaved less like the revolutionary rebels they express their admiration for and more like the British colonial lords in introducing, and in some states passing, dozens of laws aimed at restricting the fundamental right to public protest.
The murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis cop a year ago sparked protests across the country, including here in Los Angeles. But Floyd’s murder was not the first outrageous act on the part of government officials, and Floyd’s protests were not the first wave of anger and opposition to such acts. In fact, the dreaded and vilified right-wing Black Lives Matter movement began with a hashtag campaign after George Zimmerman’s 2013 acquittal for the death of Trayvon Martin.
It is in our national DNA to respond to wrongdoers with public protest. Street actions in the late 1950s and 1960s brought about decisive changes in the protection of civil rights and helped end US involvement in the Vietnam War. Three decades of protests have also helped change public awareness and national policy on energy and nuclear weapons. And don’t forget the 1999 protests against the World Trade Organization or the Occupy Wall Street movement ten years ago.
But some conservative politicians don’t like such protests. Since Donald J. Trump was elected president – which has sparked massive protests by women around the world – 45 states have considered a total of 226 bills dealing with freedom of assembly and freedom of expression, many of which would limit public protests or reduce protections for protesters, according to the International Center for Nonprofit Law, which focuses on supporting civil societies. Of these, 18 states – mostly Republican-led ones in the South and Midwest – have passed 34 bills; 64 measures are still pending.
Montana, North Dakota, Texas and several other states have increased sentences for those demonstrating near oil and gas facilities, fallout from protests against the Keystone XL pipeline; the measures appear to be part of a nationwide campaign by the pro-industry conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, which has drafted a template language for the bills. North Dakota has also made it a crime to wear a mask during a protest. Utah has criminalized protests that disrupt public meetings. Florida has ensured that all protesters belonging to groups of more than three can be held criminally responsible if any of them damages property.
Anti-protest bills are part of voter suppression efforts. These are attempts to prevent political participation primarily from black Americans, but also from anyone else who wants to join them, or anyone who opposes other actions that the government supports.
It is dangerous ground no matter where you are on the political spectrum. Democracy is based on the free exchange of ideas and the ability of people to openly express their support, opposition or even ambivalence towards government actions.
Of course, the right to protest is not the right to wreck or block a road, stop a pipeline or derail a public hearing. Yet we already have laws dealing with these issues, and those engaged in civil disobedience predict that they will face arrest for their actions. It is a step that they are ready to take.
Tellingly, the same Republicans who speak out against last summer’s violent protests appear to have no problem with the protesters who stormed the U.S. Capitol and assaulted police in hopes of overturning the results of a presidential election. For the record, if Trump supporters on Jan.6 had marched from his rally on the Ellipse to police lines at the Capitol Steps to denounce Joe Biden’s certification of victory, we would have defended their right to do so (while exploding the lies. they married). But they didn’t; an attack on the seat of government to usurp democracy is not a protest but an insurrection.
Nonetheless, the indefensible acts of destruction of property and violence by the few cannot be used as a mechanism to muzzle the many – regardless of the content of the message. This includes voices that express hatred, racism and intolerance.
The best countercurrent to a Klan rally is the widespread voices raised in condemnation. We don’t agree with those who deny the existence of white privilege in our society, but they certainly have the right to express their bigotry – and those who recognize the echoes of history have the right to offer counter-arguments, whether these take place in calm conversations, the pages of letters from this newspaper, or in the streets of cities from coast to coast in a spontaneous movement denouncing police violence.
Democracy can be controversial, boisterous and messy. This is how ours started and how it should continue. The elected officials of state capitals should not be allowed to undermine it.
This is the third in a series of editorials.