Lawmakers have seen recent protests, and changes are beginning to come. But not in the way protestors have intended.
by A. Big Country
There’s been quite a bit to protest recently, and we’ve seen huge numbers of people participating in protests to support social justice. These protests have been related to the Black Lives Matter movement, the Muslim ban, anti-LGBTQ policies and much more.
This type of social unrest is critical to our democracy. People need to be able to show legislators exactly how they feel, so change can take place. Freedom to protest is one of the rights protected by the First Amendment.
Lawmakers have seen the protests, and changes are beginning to come in. This time, however, legislators are are trying to move the country backwards — by taking away the right to protest at all.
In Iowa, nine Republican lawmakers have sponsored a bill which would make blocking highways a felony offense punishable by up to five years in prison. The bill is a reaction to a protest held the week of the Presidential election, after which roughly 100 protesters shut down a highway for 30 minutes.
In Minnesota, Republicans put forward a bill which would allow the state, or cities, to sue protesters to recover the costs of police response. The voting predictably was right down party lines — Republicans supported it, while Democrats opposed it. The American Civil Liberties Union in Minnesota questioned whether the bill is even Constitutional.
Even if these bills are unconstitutional, that doesn’t change the tenor of the argument. The primary author, Rep. Nick Zerwas, said during the bill hearing: “I think if you’re convicted of a crime where you intentionally inflict as much expense and cost upon a community as possible, you ought to get a bill. It should not be property tax payers’ responsibility to cover for your illegal behavior.” Zerwas cited a similar law, which holds responsible those who willfully start forest fires.
Of course, that argument has serious flaws. One is that protesting is a right which all Americans have, and a right which has helped pave the way for critical change in this country’s landscape. In fact, one opponent of the bill, Rep. Debra Hilstrom, spoke up in the hearing about her grandfather, who was arrested in 1939 during a teamster strike and was in jail for 18 months because of a law later deemed unconstitutional. Another flaw is that lighting a fire is arson; many of these protests are people standing up for their rights, not looking to destroy property maliciously.
Another piece of legislation has been floated in North Carolina, where house Republicans would claim that protesters who block traffic are guilty of “economic terrorism.”
The brazen use of the term “terrorism” is sadly accurate for these people, both in North Carolina and in the 16 other states which have proposed similar laws against protesting. To them, any threat to their ideas and way of life is terrorism. Even if that “way of life” is racism and bigotry.
Featured photo: A Black Lives Matter protest in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Photo by Fibonacci Blue. Creative commons license.