Stifling The Freedom To Assemble
by Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News
“I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it.”
Third President of the United States
It was March 5, 1770, when a squad of British troops responded to a report of a sentry being heckled and pelted with snowballs by a group of colonial men. When confronted by the protesters, the British troops fired, killing four people. That day became known as The Boston Massacre and represented a pivotal moment on the road to the American Revolution as it “galvanized the colonial public to the Patriot cause.”
We are sure that British crown loyalists thought the men got exactly what they deserved and that a few more should have been shot that day to make sure the rebellious colonials got the message.
December 16, 1773, represented another key moment as a group of colonialists boarded three British ships anchored in Boston harbor and dumped the tea they were carrying. The British parliament had imposed a tea tax that colonials saw as a form of “taxation tyranny.” An act of trespass and criminal damage to property, “The Boston Tea Party” is a celebrated moment in American revolutionary history.
We celebrate protest in America. It is the foundation of citizen power to change laws, end tyranny, and ensure all people have the inalienable rights “of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” guaranteed in the Constitution. But those freedoms were not guaranteed to all citizens when they were penned into the Constitution in 1787. Only certain privileged men were allowed to vote. Women were denied the vote. Blacks were held as slaves.
The road to freedom and equal rights has been a long, at times, violent one through the 1800s, 1900s, and now into the 2000s.
Women had to march in the late 1800s and early 1900s to win a right they had been denied until their protests forced Congress to adopt the 19th Amendment Aug. 26, 1920.
But even as they gained the right to vote women had to continue to fight for equal pay and against sexual harassment in the workplace. This past Jan. 20-21 the Women’s March on Washington drew over half a million people marching for women’s rights including the right to an abortion. Marchers also supported gender and racial equality.
Freedom had to be won by those beaten on Edmund Pettis Bridge March 7, 1965, as they peacefully marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King seeking equal rights for people of color in America. While the Civil Rights Act had been passed by Congress in 1964, many southern states still had laws the severely restricted the rights of Blacks to vote.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, young people across the nation protested America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Over 58,000 Americans had died in a war for which many saw no purpose to our sacrifice. Images of the cost of those protests is poignantly captured in the photo of the dead young woman on the campus at Kent State in Ohio, one of four young people shot and killed by the National Guard May 4, 1970. That graphic image and the protests helped bring an end to the war.
Protest marches have helped bring about rights for migrant farm workers, call attention to growing income inequality, shine a light on law enforcements’ systematic unequal enforcement of the law against minorities, and bring about equal rights for the gay community.
The expansion of the rights guaranteed in the Constitution to all Americans, as well as changes in bad policy over the years, came about because of people taking to the streets and protesting in public places, disrupting traffic, sitting-in in public buildings, and upsetting the normal routine of life.
Protests are a way for society to vent anger and frustration. They are a way to raise public awareness, spurring leaders to confront injustice with new laws or enforcing current laws fairly. You put a lid on injustice and it will most certainly boil over in violence no matter what the consequences. But that is just what some lawmakers are proposing to do in Minnesota and around the country – put a lid on protests.
Consider the laws that are being proposed to suppress the freedom to assemble:
Minnesota is considering a law that would raise the penalty for people who block highways from a $1,000 maximum fine to a $3,000 maximum fine. Possible jail time would increase from a maximum of 90 days to one year. The law would also allow the government to seek to recover its costs from those protesters. Similar laws are being proposed in Michigan and Washington.
Iowa wants to charge people who intentionally block highways with a felony that could lock them up for five years.
North Carolina wants to send those who heckle politicians at a public event to jail for up to five years.
North Dakota wants to protect motorists from liability if they “accidently” run over and kill a protester.
Indiana wants to give law enforcement the right to use potentially dangerous force to clear people from a highway who are participating in a protest.
Virginia is considering a law that would create a jail term of up to a year and a fine of up to $2,500 for people participating in an organized sit-down on public property.
We all agree that protesters who damage property, commit theft, or injure others should be prosecuted. They should be jailed, fined, and ordered to pay restitution when appropriate. The laws to do this already exist.
The vast majority of those who gather to march are not criminals. They are fellow citizens who believe they have a legitimate grievance and are fighting for change. They are citizens exercising one of their lst Amendment rights. Fines that are too high, threats of excessive jail time, and threats of physical harm will have a chilling effect on the right to demand needed change.
When you take freedoms away from others with the laws you pass they have a way of coming back over time to limit your own rights. Today you put Black Lives Matter marchers in jail, but tomorrow it could be Trump supporters being charged with those very same harsh penalties.