January 31, 2017; National Public Radio
NPQ declared this week that “slactkivism is over,” and the sheer number of marchers in the past week seems to bear this out. But some states have very recently introduced legislation to impede protestors, claiming that the disruption is not just a public nuisance but an actual danger. Legislatures in Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Washington, and Iowa all introduced bills to penalize or criminalize protestors. The Intercept summarized the anti-protest bills in this way:
In North Dakota, for instance, Republicans introduced a bill last week that would allow motorists to run over and kill any protester obstructing a highway as long as a driver does so accidentally. In Minnesota, a bill introduced by Republicans last week seeks to dramatically stiffen fines for freeway protests and would allow prosecutors to seek a full year of jail time for protesters blocking a highway. Republicans in Washington state have proposed a plan to reclassify as a felony civil disobedience protests that are deemed “economic terrorism” … And in Iowa, a Republican lawmaker has pledged to introduce legislation to crack down on highway protests.
Blocking roads or highways is an integral part of many protests. They deliberately interrupt traffic patterns, hoping to also interrupt the thought patterns that lead to injustice. In the case of Black Lives Matter and other racially motivated protests, they also symbolize the harm done to black communities by the freeway system that was built over many black neighborhoods.
Senator Jake Chapman, who pledged the bill in Iowa, explained that protestors are not simply stopping day-to-day traffic. “You’re impeding law enforcement ability to get to call where there could be serious life threatening situations,” he said. (Chapman also works for an ambulance service.)
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There have, in fact, been very rare, sad instances in which protestors have impeded ambulances, though of course that isn’t their aim. Most of the time, they are simply a great inconvenience to commuters and a source of lost wealth to businesses in the area.
To compare the inconvenience of a few hours, or even a few days, of protest with “economic terrorism” is irresponsible in the extreme. Such inflammatory language conflates the goal of actual terrorists—to inspire fear—with the goal of most protests, which is to peacefully give voice to an alternative point of view. Calling it terrorism, as if it were something to fear, committed by a foreign consciousness, ignores the fundamentally democratic nature of protest; instead of disrupting a system, protestors generally aim to reform it. Protest is a way to participate in the lawmaking process for those who do not have the option of direct engagement. Calling it terrorism is a way to paint its participants as “other,” as enemies to the democratic process, as people with whom it would be impossible to engage, when in fact engagement is the goal.
John Thompson, who marched in protest after the death of Philando Castile, told lawmakers, “You know what [the protestors] were doing? They were asking for all you guys to come out and say what is it we can do to help you. Not one of you came out!”
The right to free speech and assembly is guaranteed in the First Amendment to the Constitution. “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” The idea of challenging this fundamentally American right on the grounds of inconvenience would be laughable, were it not happening already in several states.
None of the bills has passed yet, and some have not even gone so far as the legislative floor. However, the passing of even one would set a dangerous precedent for the impediment of free controversial speech and would limit the effectiveness of communities to fight other policies. It behooves not just nonprofits, but all citizens, to protect their rights to protest.—Erin Rubin