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Right to protest is in danger

One night in 1773, a group of about 60 men who had disguised themselves as Native Americans boarded three merchant ships at a Boston wharf and dumped dozens of chests of imported tea into the cold dark waters — an act of civil disobedience that damaged private property in protest against government tax policies.

Conservatives these days hail that moment; a faction on the right co-opted the name Tea Party as its own. Yet conservative state legislators across the country have been behaving less like the revolutionary rebels and more like British colonial overlords by introducing, and in some states passing, dozens of laws aimed at curtailing the fundamental right to public protest.

The murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer a year ago prompted protests across the country. It is in our national DNA to respond to the objectionable through public protest. Street actions in the late 1950s and 1960s spurred changes in civil rights protections and helped bring an end to U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Three decades of protests also helped change public awareness and national policy on nuclear energy and weapons. And don’t forget the 1999 anti-World Trade Organization protests, or the Occupy Wall Street movement a decade ago.

But some conservative politicians don’t like such protests. Since Donald J. Trump’s election — which spurred massive protests by women around the world — 45 states have considered a total of 226 bills addressing free assembly and free speech rights.

Montana, North Dakota, Texas increased penalties for people protesting near oil or gas installations, fallout from the protests against the Keystone XL pipeline. North Dakota also made it a crime to wear a mask during a protest. Utah criminalized protests that disrupt public meetings. Florida made it so all protesters in groups of more than three can be held criminally liable if any of them damages property.

Anti-protest bills are of a piece with voter suppression efforts. They are attempts to shut off the political participation first of Black Americans, but also of anyone else moved to stand with them, or anyone who would stand against other actions that the government supports.

This is dangerous ground, no matter where on the political spectrum you may stand. Democracy is predicated on the free exchange of ideas and the ability of people to openly express support or opposition regarding government actions.

Of course, the right to protest is not the right to rampage or block a highway or halt a pipeline or derail a public hearing. Yet we already have laws attending to those issues, and people engaged in civil disobedience anticipate that they will face arrests for their actions.

Tellingly, the same Republicans who rail about violent protests seem to have no problem at all with the protesters who stormed the U.S. Capitol and assaulted police officers in hopes of overturning the results of a presidential election.

All the same, indefensible acts of property destruction and violence by the few cannot be used to muzzle the many — regardless of the content of the message. That includes voices that express hatred, racism and intolerance.

Democracy can be contentious, loud and messy. That’s the way ours began and the way it must continue. Elected officials in state capitals should not be allowed to undermine it.

* Guest editorial from the Los Angeles Times

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