This is the first installment of the series Protecting Protest: We Need All Hands on Deck, published in partnership with the Protect Dissent Network. Writers examine how the constitutional right to protest is being threatened and why we must fight to protect it. Analyzing what anti-protest legislation signals for the future of the country and our democracy, contributors address what we must do to defeat these attempts to repress our voices and reverse progress.
My heart sank as I received a flurry of texts from friends and leaders in the reproductive justice and rights movements about the leaked Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade—a move that will further restrict abortion access in this country. Many of us knew this was coming, but I was still overcome with feelings of rage, anger, and grief.
I didn’t want to be stuck alone with these feelings, so I took to the streets over the next few days to be in community and collectively express our dissent and our support for people seeking abortions. As we marched across the Brooklyn Bridge, I could feel the collective power of thousands chanting, and I started to feel a sense of determination and even a little hope. This protest was an important reminder for me of the power of community to care for each other, to fight for each other, and to keep moving— literally and figuratively—in pursuit of justice.
Now imagine that public protest to express dissent to the leaked draft ruling on Roe v. Wade has also become illegal. Those in power could deliberate and make laws that impact our lives, and we would have to sit back and accept it or risk imprisonment if we assembled with others to make our grievances known.
Sadly, this is not a far-fetched scenario. US lawmakers are leading a sustained effort to silence dissent by punishing protestors—and their laws often target activists and communities of color for speaking out against injustice.
Criminalizing Protest to Silence Black and Indigenous Movements
Since 2017, state legislators have introduced over 238 bills in 45 states that aim to stamp out dissent by increasing the civil and criminal penalties for protest tactics as common as blocking traffic. Their attempts to restrict protest have often been in response to powerful social movements. After the protests at Standing Rock, lawmakers introduced dozens of bills targeting protests led by Indigenous communities by reclassifying pipelines as “critical infrastructure” and dramatically increasing the penalties for protesting near pipelines. As more people took to the streets in 2020 in defense of Black lives, lawmakers responded with hundreds of new anti-protest bills.
In the summer of 2020, demonstrators camped out at Tennessee’s state capitol, demanding a meeting with the governor to discuss plans to address police brutality. Rather than meeting with demonstrators, Tennessee legislators made camping on state grounds a felony punishable by up to six years in prison. In Arkansas, a demonstrator could also face up to six years in prison for purposefully entering a pipeline construction site under HB1321. In Florida, after the historic protests for racial justice, legislators passed HB1. One of the harshest anti-protest laws in the country, HB1 dramatically increases penalties for common protest tactics like blocking traffic. It also limits the ability of cities to reduce their police budgets. The law is currently being challenged through litigation.
Lawmakers in dozens of states have even been so bold as to introduce new legal defenses and immunity for drivers who injure or kill demonstrators, passing this into law in Oklahoma, Iowa, and Florida. These laws are particularly disturbing given the history of people using their cars as weapons to attack and intimidate demonstrators: most notably, when a driver drove his vehicle into a group of anti-racist protestors at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, killing Heather Heyer. Unfortunately, this trend has continued. In the months following George Floyd’s murder, there were over 100 incidents of people driving their cars into protests. Laws like these only incentivize harassment and violence toward protestors.
It is not surprising that these efforts to quash dissent are being backed by the very special interests that demonstrators are trying to hold accountable. If you follow the money, it is the oil companies, police unions, and special interest lobbying groups that are backing these anti-protest bills.
Investing to Protect Protest and Advance Justice
The Supreme Court’s draft ruling on Roe brings two of my roles together: being an advocate for abortion access and my current role at the Piper Fund, where I partner with groups around the country to protect protest.
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The confluence of anti-protest bills along with attacks on individual rights such as autonomy over our own bodies and decisions is disconcerting, to put it lightly. It is a tried-and-true formula for authoritarianism.
We must be able to make our voices heard and hold power accountable. Protest is and has been our primary recourse for speaking our collective truth to power to make change and to fight injustice. The ability to do so is a hallmark of democracy.
Philanthropy has a critical role to play by investing in groups fighting to protect our right to protest. It is critical for funders to continue to support groups working on specific issues like reproductive justice, racial justice, LGBTQI rights, environmental justice, immigrant rights and more, which are all being threatened by the wave of repressive politics taking over the US. We must also work to defend the very tenets of our democracy that make the realization of these rights possible.
In recent years, it has been heartening to see issue-based funders adding democracy portfolios to their body of work and to see democracy funders expand their investment beyond voting rights to key pillars of democracy, including judicial independence, money in politics reform, and the right to protest. My hope is that these trends continue.
I know from the experiences of our local partners, many of whom are multi-issue organizations, that fighting anti-protest bills every session takes a major toll. For many groups, protecting the right to protest isn’t a choice—it’s essential to their fight for justice. This is work that is underfunded and often goes under the radar. When we are no longer able to stand up for what we believe in, it becomes impossible to create the world we all deserve. This means that leaders who are resisting these anti-protest bills are fighting for all of us.
We must constantly ask ourselves: What does it mean when dissent becomes less possible? Funders don’t need to wait for the answer because, sadly, we have many examples from which to draw. When we can no longer check those in power, wrongdoing on a massive scale becomes possible, democracy falters, and progress toward a more just and equitable society becomes impossible.
Investing to protect protest is an opportunity for funders to go beyond issue-based funding to foster deeper intersectional and perhaps even global connections, leading to a cross-pollination of ideas that can increase our impact. When protest is threatened, so are workers’ rights, environmental justice, racial justice, reproductive justice, LGBTQI rights, and every other cause that people hold close to their hearts. Acknowledging this is the first step. The next step is to double down on protecting protest, protestors, and our democracy at all costs.
In facing this challenge, there is some good news: This is actually a winnable issue. The majority of these bills have been defeated. Unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped lawmakers from introducing a slate of anti-protest bills every year. This legislation pushes issue-based organizing groups into a defensive posture, which makes them less able to dedicate time and resources to proactive organizing and base building on their key issues. So, even while we are winning the fight against anti-protest legislation, these bills are a blow to progress of our movements.
Organizers doing this work experience a significant challenge when fighting these laws: many people are unaware of the issue. By directing more resources to groups on the frontlines of protecting protest, we could develop greater public awareness of and opposition to these laws. This would signal to elected officials that we will not stand by as they endanger our lives, encroach on our rights, and destroy our democracy.
Now is the time to increase our support for state-level organizations that are consistently fighting for a more just society. As the Supreme Court is poised to turn the question of the legality of abortion to the states, local- and state-level organizations will need all the support they can get to lead this fight, while simultaneously defending the very ability to make their voices heard from ongoing threats.