Outrage of the Week: making it harder to protest
I said last week that the Outrage of the Week was a teaser because I didn't have time to cover it more fully and that I would make 1st order of business this week. So I'm doing exactly that and our first item is the Outrage of the Week.
I'll start with a quick reminder from last week. I started by referring you to my Rules of Rightwing Debate, number 18 of which reads: "If you can't win by the rules, change them."
I always use voter suppression as a great example of this. The right wing knows it can't win if the mass of the American public votes, so it has been engaged in a years-long effort to make it harder and harder for people to vote at all - particularly the poor, minorities, and the young; that is, the ones least likely to vote reactionary.
But now the rules they are trying to change are quite literally those of the First Amendment.
Faced with outraged citizens and ongoing protests big and small, faced with outraged constituents at town halls, the GOPpers are trying to make it harder and harder to engage in legal protest of any kind.
In the days immediately following the historic protests of January 21, GOPpers in at least six state legislatures were moving to try to block or at least minimize public opposition by criminalizing peaceful protests and sharply increasing penalties for nonviolent civil disobedience. In at least three of those cases they proposed to forgive crimes committed against protesters so long as they were done "accidentally."
The number of states considering such laws quickly grew to eight then to 10 and now stands at at least eighteen: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Mississippi, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington either have considered or are now considering such bills.
There are proposals to ban the use of masks, to increase penalties for trespass on so-called "critical infrastructure," which seems to mean some area where the particular state does not want to allow protests, even one that would make heckling a government official a crime.
But others go far beyond that:
Last week, I told you about the proposed law in Arizona that would expose all participants in and organizers of any demonstration where any property damage occurred to racketeering charges, which involve penalties not only of a year in prison but seizure of personal property and assets. That bill passed the state Senate but died in the House, but it is not the only example of trying to financially crush protest.
Michigan is working on a law to restrict mass picketing. This is more aimed at labor unions, but could be applied to any action that is a series. If a demonstration is deemed an "illegal" mass picket, penalties for taking part would shoot up to $1000 per person per day and $10,000 per organization per day. What's most interesting is that it's hard to find a real definition of what makes a mass picket illegal; it seems to come down to if the target of the picket can convince some judge that there are more people picketing than necessary to make the point.
In another tack on the same line, in Minnesota, a proposed bill would allow localities to charge protesters for the costs of policing the protests.
Also in Minnesota, keeping the traffic flowing is more important than the ability to nonviolently protest: A bill there would triple the fine for taking part in a blockade of a roadway from $1000 to $3000 and lengthen the prison term from 90 days to a year.
An early version of a bill under consideration in Indiana called on police to clear any roadway blocked by protesters within 15 minutes by "any means necessary."
That's not good enough for Iowa and Mississippi, where proposals would make blocking a highway a felony, subject to up to five years in prison.
That's nothing, says North Dakota: We would exempt a driver from liability if they injure or kill a protester taking part in a blockade of a street or highway - provided only that it was done "accidentally," as if they hadn't noticed the traffic backup or this large group of people in the road.
That bill failed to pass out of the House by what in a sane world would be the shockingly close vote of 50-41. But meanwhile, Florida and Tennessee have bills with the same "kill a protester, no problem" idea under consideration.
Now, it's important to note that not all of these efforts succeeded or will succeed: A number of them never got out of committee, some others failed to pass, some others got through one house of a bicameral state legislature only to die in the other. Maybe ultimately none of them will pass.
It is also true that a number of these bills, even were they to be passed into law, would not survive a Constitutional challenge.
That doesn't change the fact that these bills have been introduced, considered, debated, supported at least by some. It doesn't change the fact that there is a concerted push to find ways to respond to protests not by embracing their message, not even by considering if they may have a point, but by shutting them down, silencing them by silencing those that would take part in them by threatening them with such severe consequences that they are intimidated from taking part, by, to use a more legalistic term, "chilling" their speech.
And if you have any doubt of that, just remember that Douglas McAdam, a Stanford sociology professor who studies protest movements, notes that this is hardly the first time for this. For example, when the US labor movement became active in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a number of laws were created "to limit or outlaw labor organizing or limit labor rights."
For another example, in the 1950s, southern states responded to the emerging civil rights movement with "dozens of new bills outlawing civil rights groups, limiting the rights of assembly," and more, "all in an effort to make civil rights organizing more difficult," McAdam said.
Even the wild, laughable charges about "paid protesters" are nothing new.
So yes, this is nothing new, rather, it's what you should expect when the voice of the people rises to challenge the reactionaries. It is their natural reaction, their knee-jerk response, to look for ways to shut us up and shut us down, to make us go away.
But the fact that this is not new doesn't change, in fact it underlines, the fact that these bills comprise an assault on the right to assemble. And it doesn't change, in fact it underlines, the fact that they are an outrage.