Protecting the right to protest

American and pattiot.jpgBerta Caceres paid the ultimate price – she was assassinated one year ago in Honduras, killed for her work for indigenous rights and environmental protection. On February 17, indigenous leader José Santos Sevilla was assassinated in his home — another martyr paying the ultimate price for defending indigenous rights and working for environmental justice. Santos Sevilla, reports Democracy Now, “was the leader of the indigenous Tolupan people, who are fighting to protect their ancestral lands from industrial mining and logging projects.” Berta Oliva,  Honduran human rights leader, spoke to La Jornada (Mexico):

“Oliva consideró que con Sevilla pasó lo mismo que con Berta Cáceres y esto coincide con lo que dijo en su informe (la organización británica) Global Witness, que los defensores de la tierra y del ambiente están en peligro de ser asesinados en Honduras.

“Oliva believs that the same thing happened to Sevilla as to Berta Cáceres, and this confirms what Global Witness (a British organization), said in its report, that the defenders of the earth and the environment are in danger of being assassinated in Honduras” [my translation]

That 2015 Global Witness report described the killing of environmentalists around the world, and pointed to specific threats to Berta Cáceres, before her assassination:

“The case of Berta Cáceres is emblematic of the systematic targeting of environmental defenders in Honduras. Since 2013, three of her colleagues have been killed for resisting the Agua Zarca hydro-dam on the Gualcarque River, which threatens to cut off a vital water source for hundreds of indigenous Lenca people. Fabricated criminal charges have been filed against her, and two of her children have left Honduras out of concerns for their safety.”

In the 1950s and 1960s, scores of U.S. civil rights activists were killed: Medgar Evers, Jimmy Lee Jackson, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Vernon Dahmer, Viola Liuzzo, Rev. James Reeb, Henry and Hariette Moore, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman … the list goes on and on.

Today, protesters in the United States rarely have more to fear than jail time. That will change, if right-wing activists and Republican state legislators across the country succeed in passing legislation targeting protest.

North Dakota’s run-down-a-protester bill may be the most notorious, proposing to legalize “accidentally” or “negligently” running over protesters who are on a highway. That bill was defeated, but others remain, popping up like poisonous mushrooms around the country.

An Arizona House committee voted to allow arresting protesters even before anything happens. The bill would also authorize seizing their assets to pay for damage, even if the damage is caused by the other side. The Arizona Capitol Times reports:

“Claiming people are being paid to riot, Republican state senators voted Wednesday to give police new power to arrest anyone who is involved in a peaceful demonstration that may turn bad — even before anything actually happened.

“But the real heart of the legislation is what Democrats say is the guilt by association — and giving the government the right to criminally prosecute and seize the assets of everyone who planned a protest and everyone who participated. And what’s worse, said Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, is that the person who may have broken a window, triggering the claim there was a riot, might actually not be a member of the group but someone from the other side.”

The bill, which is clearly unconstitutional, hasn’t passed — yet.

On Martin Luther King Day, a Virginia Senate committee passed a bill to ratchet up penalties for peaceful protest. The Virginia Senate later killed the bill, with some Republicans joining Democrats to defeat it.

Right here in Minnesota, legislators are considering several bills to penalize protest. Two House bills (HF390 and  HF1066) would increase penalties for anyone who obstructs traffic on a highway or at an airport or on a waterway.

Another Minnesota bill (HF0322) would allow local governments to sue anyone convicted of being present at an “unlawful assembly” to be sued for the entire amount of police, legal, administrative and court costs. The Guardian reported:

“The bill, which passed a Republican-controlled committee in the Minnesota house of representatives on Tuesday, would give state agencies, cities or counties the authority to bring civil lawsuits against people convicted of unlawful assembly or public nuisance. The lawsuits could seek the full cost of responding to the “unlawful assembly”, including officer time, helicopters flying overhead and administrative expenses.”

Any protester who is present could be sued for the entire cost of law enforcement used to shut down a peaceful protest. One obvious effect of this legislation would be to scare away older, richer demonstrators. “Richer,” of course, is a relative term. Do you own a home? Do you have some money saved for your kids’ college education? Or for your retirement? Would you be willing to risk it all by participating in a peaceful demonstration?

Minnesota’s bills are a “response to protests that erupted after the deaths of two black men at the hands of Minnesota police,” reports the Star Tribune, a finding amplified by The Guardian:

“Both critics and supporters of the controversial bill agree on one thing: it is a response to Black Lives Matter-inspired protests in the Twin Cities area over the last two years, particularly after an officer shot and killed Philando Castile in July. The officer who shot Castile, Jeronimo Yanez, has since been charged with second degree manslaughter. …

“Minneapolis NAACP president, Jason Sole, called the bill a “highly racialized” response to the local protest movement.

“It’s just another way for them to say, OK, if they don’t stop and let us run it how we want to run it, we’re going to further penalize them,” he said. “That has always been the response when people want to rise up. If you look at the civil rights movement, people were beaten, they had dogs on them. This is just another way to tell us to stay in our place.”

Protest and dissent always carry a price. The anti-protest bills in Minnesota and across the country aim to increase the price of protest and to make dissent more difficult. We honor the memories of those who have given their lives when we defend the right to dissent and the right to protest. We honor their memory when we insist that the First Amendment still governs and that neither Congress nor the Minnesota legislature shall make any 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.”

What you can do:

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Filed under human rights, organizing, race

One response to “Protecting the right to protest

  1. Pingback: Ash Wednesday, Sage Thursday: Walking prayer and protest | News Day

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