Action Meets Reaction: Legislators Try to Curtail Protests

Ideas and Issues

New Orleans   In high school chemistry one of the few things we all learned that made a permanent impression as an almost universal rule of life, is that for every action there is a reaction. The rising activism, resistance, and protest that has been a hallmark of grassroots action this year thus far is being met by equally strident grassroots reaction by conservatives. If the streets have become our hallowed ground, the legislative aisles have become theirs in many states. A report in the New York Times counts sixteen states that have filed bills designed to curtail and intimidate protests and various disruptive tactics with another two states, Massachusetts and North Carolina, pushing to bring the total to eighteen, according to Jonathan Griffin, a policy analyst at the National Conference of State Legislators.

Not surprisingly many of the bills are directed to the heart of our most disruptive, and therefore effective, tactics on our primary turf, the streets. Most of these bills are outrageous, any hopefully won’t pass, and most of the ones that do will hopefully be overturned by courts, but some will slip through, and the betting odds have to favor a lot more of these kinds of bills being introduced under the guise of public safety, but with the real purpose being to stop protests and herd them into tactical zones out of sound and sight or towards greater risks and penalties.

The bills are varied, but these highlights will give you some flavor:

· A Tennessee bill would make hitting protestors in the streets a no-fault, kill zone by eliminating any liability of someone accidentally hitting someone blocking a street.
· An Iowa bill reacting to anti-Trump protestors blocking Interstate 80 would make blocking high-speed roads a felony with a 5-year prison bid and $7500 in fines. Mississippi piled on with a me-too bill and fines of up to $10,000.
· In Washington State it would be so-called “economic terrorism” and a felony to break the law to obstruct economic activity.
· In Minnesota a bill would allow cities to sue demonstrators who break the law for the cost of policing the protests.
· In North Carolina a bill has been promised to outlaw “heckling.”
· In North Dakota following the Standing Rock pipeline protests, legislators have already passed measures to expand criminal trespass, ban masks and hoods, and recruit out of state cops to assist local police during protest events.

So, sure, some of these bills are blatantly ridiculous and unenforceable, and others are plain and simple violations of First Amendment rights of free speech and assembly, but they do part of their villainous work by posing a threat to protestors, even if illegal and unconstitutional.

Worse in my book is the chorus of professors and legal experts who argue that protestors would be on rougher grounds if they lack permits. I’ve spent decades as an organizer abiding by the simple principle of never applying for a permit. Applying gives police and elected officials the ability to deny the protest, and shifts timing and control over to the authorities and away from the organization and the action. In almost 50 years I’ve only approved of two permit applications for actions, largely because they were more like parades.

Criminalizing protests and making simple worst-case misdemeanors for simple trespass into felonies with jail terms and fines ups the ante. The only protection will be larger and larger actions, but the efforts to curtail protest speak loudly to a darker political climate and an oppressive future in confrontations with power.


Please enjoy Ray Davies’ Rock N Roll Cowboys.

Sheryl Crow’s Halfway There.

Thanks to KABF.