It feels like the foundations of our country as a radical experiment in government of, by, and for the people is being eroded away. In years past, it was a slow erosion, hardly visible, in the form of increased access and privilege for the affluent while the rest of us were slowly pushed aside with regard to opportunity and access to our government. The slow creation of a two-tiered country, with the spoils going mainly to those at the top led to understandable disaffection and anger among those who rightly see the system as unfair. Unfortunately, waiting with open arms was a man and a movement that was only too happy to twist that disaffection to move further away from our founding ideals.
Those ideals are often found in the Bill of Rights. The first of those guarantees that citizens have the right to protest, petition, and speak up against the government. But the powerful do not like when people oppose their interests. We are seeing that play out all too openly as the Trump administration follows in the footsteps of so many despots by attacking the free press.
Lost among the outrage against the Trump administrations excesses, however, is an equally invidious attack on our fundamental liberties against government oppression—the right to speak, assemble, and petition our government. As more people have begun to protest against injustice, they have been met with a reactionary response to stop them and criminalize the opposition. Make no mistake, these reactions are in response to the message of protests, not from any real problem to be solved. Many people who have never been politically engaged before have been protesting Republican efforts to eliminate their healthcare. Citizens have spontaneously protested in cities around the country the seemingly constant barrage of police officers killing black people for no reason. Pipeline protesters, scientists, and environmentalists have joined the protests. In response, Republican legislators and politicians have proposed alarming new laws aimed at curbing the right to protest.
The recent spate of unconstitutional, anti-protest legislation is deeply concerning, even as much of it fails. Since the November election, Republican lawmakers have introduced or voted on dozens of new anti-protest bills designed to quell the protests. Much of the legislation has been aimed at increasing the penalties for protest related activities. In March 2017, National Lawyers Guild Director Traci Yoder surveyed the new anti-protest laws proposed. There were states trying to increase the available fines and jail sentences for protesters obstructing traffic (Minnesota, Washington, South Dakota, Indiana, Florida, Mississippi, Iowa); states trying to increase penalties for tampering with or trespassing on infrastructure such as pipelines (Colorado, Oklahoma); states trying to criminalize picketing (Michigan, Arkansas); and states looking to criminalize refusing to leave an “unlawful protest” (Virginia). There was also legislation written to protect drivers who hit and kill protesters (North Dakota, Tennessee, Florida). These measures are designed to weaken the power of citizens who oppose powerful interests—these proposals were never trotted out when right-wing protesters (including some who were heavily armed) came out in droves against Obamacare.
Despite the wishes of the powerful institutions that want to silence opposition, our Constitution is still holding. Most of the proposed legislation is blatantly unconstitutional, and so far much of it is failing to get passed. But as we are all learning, we cannot just simply trust that our political institutions will act with our country’s cherished principles in mind or in the best interest of our citizens. We must remain aware and vigilant against these anti-American measures. Our country was founded on a radical idea—that government ought to be attentive to and serve the needs of the people. We fought a revolution for that end, and reaffirmed it through a bloody civil war to at least begin to cleanse us of the stain of racism from our founding. Our civil rights movement was founded on protest to oppression, and helped end one form of racism—Jim Crow. We have faced dangerous times before that have threatened our better ideals and overcome them because citizens fought together. It is time for us to come together again to protect the better ideals of our experiment in self-government. We must first fight for our rights to oppose the government, and then use that opposition to create a more just society for ourselves and our children.