Art by Julianna Sanroman
Whatever your perception on protest is, it is an American right. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects the right of people to peaceably assemble. Legally, that is the case and it ought to be the case. This must be clear, if you have protested with the T.E.A Party, you have been protected by the Constitution. If you have marched for gun rights, you have been protected by the Constitution. If you have marched in favor of a woman’s right to choose or in favor of ending abortions, you have been protected by the Constitution. If you have marched to be treated as a human being or because a brother, a sister, a son or a daughter of your community is still not being treated like one, you have been protected by the Constitution. And if you marched these past few months to an airport to show the world what American values are to you, you have been protected by the Constitution. That’s how it is, that’s how it was meant to be, that’s how it should be. This right was enshrined in the foundations of our legal system because the freedom to share your voice is a necessity for the health of a democracy.
But if I wanted to write purely to congratulate you, I could go to Facebook or Twitter. I’m not doing that because this right is being threatened. In ten states across our nation, Washington, Minnesota, Iowa, Virginia, Colorado, Missouri, North Carolina, North Dakota, Indiana and my home state of Michigan, legislation is being discussed or introduced that would curb the rights of protesters.
The first state is Washington wherein State Senator Doug Ericksen has proposed a bill that seeks to distinguish protesting and “economic terrorism”. Economic terrorism in this bill is defined as “blocking transportation and commerce, damaging property, threatening jobs and putting public safety at risk”. In the creation of this distinction, the bill would make “economic terrorism” a class C felony in the state of Washington. This is understandable enough in prosecuting property damage or putting public safety at risk but what’s perplexing is the intentionally vague language of “blocking transportation and commerce” and “threatening jobs”, the meaning of which would be up to the agents of criminal justice prosecuting the protester. With such loosely worded language used to more strongly rather than less strongly prosecute a protester engaging in what would otherwise be considered peaceful protest, it’s clear that abuse of this language along many different lines of discrimination could harm citizens of Washington speaking out on issues that matter to them. The motivation of this bill doesn’t help, as Ericksen, having multiple oil refineries in his district, seems to be specifically targeting protesters who attempt to stop oil trains. Disruptive though they may be, there is a great danger in using escalating language like “terrorism” to sway public opinion about protests that harm no one and the positive in profits for Sen. Ericksen’s commercial constituents may not be worth the loss of rights for Washington’s private citizens. (I urge you to find out who your legislators are and to contact them asking them not to support this bill if you live in the state of Washington. To identify your state legislators, please visit http://app.leg.wa.gov/districtfinder/)
This is the first in a series on state-level legislation attempting to stop the rights of Americans to protest.