End government assaults on the right to protest

A protest march in Miami. PHOTO: Shutterstock
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Unprecedented marches against police murder of Black and other people of color brought between 15 and 26 million people into the streets of cities and towns across the country in 2020. Calls to divert police funding and use the money to house the homeless and provide desperately needed social services during the pandemic multiplied.

At least 10 major cities voted to cut police budgets by up to 50%, over the strenuous objections of police unions, business interests and politicians in both major parties. Actions against pipelines have held up construction in several places, enraging Big Oil, and have faced vicious counter-attack.

A big business sponsored backlash. Less than a month after protests began, state and municipal governments launched a laundry list of assaults on the right to organize, to criticize the government, or to demonstrate. Proposed bills, often written by local or state police unions, assert that protests are not protected by the Constitution, but are instead riots, promoted by “antifa” or Black Lives Matter. Law enforcement groups have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to sponsors of these bills. Legislation passed in Florida, which criminalizes most street action, serves as boilerplate language in several other states.

State legislatures and cities from east to west coasts, from Minnesota to Florida, have filed over 100 bills that follow this template. Misnamed as “anti-riot” bills, they instead criminalize public rallies against racist police violence, neo-Nazis, and discriminatory economic and housing practices.

If passed, most would escalate misdemeanors, like failure to disperse, to felonies. Some ban arrestees from public jobs, qualifying for student loans or other financial aid, or receiving unemployment benefits. In some states, felons lose the right to vote. For undocumented immigrants, felony convictions trigger deportation.

The crackdown on dissent is gathering steam. Recently, Oklahoma went through a public reckoning during the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre, during which the KKK and lynch mobs burned down the entire Black section of the city. Yet in April, the governor signed a bill making it legal for drivers to run their cars over demonstrators who block their way. All the driver has to do is claim they felt threatened.

In Miami, during a “Cubans for Trump caravan,” an SUV driver rammed into Jonathan Gartrelle, a Black Lives Matter activist. The driver then took off and later pressed charges against Gartrelle. Police arrested the pedestrian for two felonies — for escape and strong-arm robbery. His crime? Taking the flag off the car. He is one of the more than 14,000 protesters arrested at anti-racism demonstrations last summer.

These measures are the brainchild of historic union busters. Take Charles Koch, whose billions come from the fossil fuel industry. His foundation sponsors anti-union organizations like the Freedom Foundation and promotes anti-environmental legislation nationwide. He co-founded the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which has funded many of the politicians who wrote or supported these laws. The list of ALEC donors includes AT&T, Comcast, Philip Morris, United Healthcare and the Walmart Foundation.

Frontline targets — people of color. Black Lives Matter and supporters, along with indigenous organizers, immigration activists, leftists and anti-fascists are in the crosshairs. Anything that threatens business as usual brings out the troops.

In northern Minnesota, Indigenous leader Winona LaDuke told Democracy Now she is working to stop the Canada based Endridge Line 3 pipeline because, “When finished [it] would carry more than 915,000 barrels of tar sands oil a day, the largest tar sands pipeline in the world.” The plan is to dredge through Native American land and fragile ecosystems, endangering lakes, rivers, fish, clams and wild rice beds. Minnesota’s governor ordered the company out, but in June, occupiers were sand blasted by low flying Customs and Border Patrol helicopters. LaDuke added, “Endridge paid for the cops, but Biden paid for the helicopters.” Occupiers, aptly titled water protectors, are calling for hundreds of supporters to join them.

In tandem with laws criminalizing dissent, over 350 new bills limiting the right to vote have either passed or are in the wings. Georgia’s Stacy Abrams calls them, “Jim Crow in a suit and tie.” These voting restrictions disproportionately block eligible voters who are Black, Latinx or low-income from casting a ballot. Clearly, anti-protest and voter suppression laws are aimed at the same communities.

Anti-protest legislation can and will be used against the labor movement. Any law that says two or more people acting in concert can be called a riot by police is tailor-made to break strike lines.

Release the protesters! If labor and social movements mobilize to assert our First Amendment rights in the streets and challenge restrictions on those rights in the courts, we can stop these outrageous anti-democratic attacks.

As of early July, there were 200 water protectors still in Minnesota jails, charged with “trespassing on critical infrastructure,” a charge promoted by ALEC after the 2016 Standing Rock occupation. The National Lawyers Guild (NLG), in concert with others, is asking for help in getting protesters out of jail. Unions, community groups, and individuals are encouraged to contact the NLG. Visit nlg.org and search for “water protectors” to find more information and links to petitions.

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