A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Government moves to suppress dissent

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., March 20, 21 or 22

In recent months, President Trump issued an executive order and Republican lawmakers in 19 states starting considering legislation to curb demonstrations in what civil liberties experts call “an attack on protest rights.” If passed, such measures could affect lawful picket lines by unionists, Tea Partiers, conservationists or anti-abortion crusaders as well as mass marches about other issues.

The executive order would “develop strategies led by the Department of Justice … to further enhance the protection and safety of federal, state, tribal and local law enforcement officers.” However, it actually aims at Americans protesting at Standing Rock, or over police shootings of unarmed people, or about Trump’s travel ban. In that sense, it’s similar to the notorious COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover used against African-American and anti-war activists in the 1960s, according to attorney Flint Taylor, who represented the families of Peorian Mark Clark and Chicagoan Fred Hampton in the Black Panthers’ killings by police.

“This order is designed to criminalize and quash dissent,” Taylor said. “The next target after those who practice civil disobedience may well be the millions who have been taking to the streets.”

Meanwhile, some states’ legislators would increase punishments for blocking highways, ban the use of masks during protests, indemnify drivers who hit protesters with their vehicles, and, in Arizona, seize assets from people participating in protests that result in property damage or violence.

In a related development, U.S. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) this month demanded current FBI Director James Comey explain why the FBI is treating some people protesting the Dakota Access pipeline like terrorists.

“I am concerned that the reported questioning of political activities by one of the FBI’s terrorism task forces threatens to chill constitutionally protected conduct and speech,” Franken wrote.

Dissent is the nation’s heritage, of course, and the First Amendment still protects – for now – the rights to assemble and to push for a redress of grievances as well as freedom to worship, freedom of the press and free speech.

Nevertheless, Arizona Republicans claimed people are being paid to riot, and lawmakers want to give police power to arrest anyone involved in a peaceful demonstration that “turns bad” — even before anything happens. (By the way, there’s no evidence for assertions like “paid protestors,” much less allegations such as demonstrators throwing feces at police, according to Traci Yoder, National Lawyers Guild Director of Research and Education.)

Arizona State Sen. Andrea Dalessandro (D-Green Valley) said, “I’m fearful that ‘riot’ is in the eyes of the beholder and that this bill will apply more strictly to minorities and people trying to have their voice heard.”

Besides Arizona, states where such measures have been introduced are Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Mississippi, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia, and Washington.

None of the proposed legislation has passed, and critics from civil liberties activists to Democratic lawmakers say such laws would be unconstitutional.

“The Supreme Court has gone out of its way on multiple occasions to point out that streets, sidewalks and public parks are places where [First Amendment] protections are at their most robust,” American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Lee Rowland told the Washington Post.

It’s not the first time legislatures have tried to muzzle public protests.

“Laws designed to limit or outlaw labor organizing or limit labor rights were common in the late 19th/early 20th century,” said Rowland, who added that after the 1955-56 Montgomery bus boycott and the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 desegregation decision, legislators in the Deep South introduced similar bills outlawing Civil Rights organizations, limiting the rights of assembly, and so on, “all in an effort to make Civil Rights organizing more difficult,” Rowland said.

Arizona State Sen. Martin Quezada (D-Phoenix), said that everything that constitutes rioting already is a crime, ranging from inciting to riot, assault and criminal damage to property, and individuals responsible can be prosecuted.

Still, labor and other activists must monitor the trend in order to protect Americans’ right to take action.

“As civil and human rights advocates face the challenges of the new administration, it is imperative to not be demoralized or frightened into ceding the streets in the face of legislative attempts to curb mass protest,” said Yoder. “We must instead continue to organize and to keep a close watch on these bills as they emerge in state and federal legislatures, and to push back at every level.”

[PICTURED: Photo from ACLU.]

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