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The Right to Peaceful Protest Needs Protection More Than Ever

Police and federal responses to Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd show the urgent need to defend dissent.

By Josh Leach on June 3, 2020

Cities across the United States—and the globe—are witnessing an outpouring of grief, anguish, fury, and demands for justice, in response to the May 25 murder of George Floyd at the hands of police. Floyd, a 46-year-old father of two, is one of numerous Black people killed by police and white vigilantes in recent months, including Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and Sean Reed—part of a pervasive pattern of systemic racial violence.

As thousands across the nation push for structural changes to end this injustice, law enforcement has responded with tear gas, military-grade equipment, and unprovoked use of force. Meanwhile, Trump (who has endorsed police brutality in the past, while speaking to an audience of cops) threatened to expand the role of the U.S. military in cracking down on protests, officially label domestic activists as “terrorists,” and unleash “vicious dogs” and other violence on people who take to the streets to express dissent.

Ironically, these racialized threats, vile rhetoric, and unchecked displays of force highlight the very evils the protesters are seeking to address: police militarization and brutality, structural racism, and systematic disregard for the lives of Black people. These incidents also point to the urgent need to defend the rights of protesters against a low-visibility effort that has been unfolding in state houses across the country: one that seeks to make peaceful resistance itself a crime.

In recent years, state legislatures have taken up and passed numerous laws designed to intimidate activists and criminalize dissent. Most are thinly veiled efforts to target activists who are people of color, who have led the charge in grassroots struggles for climate justice, sovereignty, and human rights across the country. All these bills pose a grave threat to the rights—and lives—of protesters, especially in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even though public health officials now recommend wearing masks to halt transmission of the coronavirus, for instance, at least 14 states have considered or passed bills that would make it a crime to wear face coverings in a protest or other public gathering. In our present moment, such measures would leave Black protesters with the impossible choice of risking potentially fatal encounters with the police, or infection from a pandemic that has overwhelmingly taken the lives of Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color, due to structural racism.

In other states, proposed laws would hold organizers liable for damages that occur during the protest, regardless of whether or not they were personally responsible: a strategy of legal intimidation that has recently been deployed against a Black Lives Matter activist, DeRay Mckesson. Another cluster of bills—so-called “Critical Infrastructure” laws—create new legal risks for Native climate activists. It is no coincidence that these laws emerged in the wake of the Indigenous-led protests at Standing Rock.

Bills to expand the number of people jailed for exercising Constitutionally protected rights would be abhorrent under any circumstances. These laws are particularly dangerous and unconscionable in the midst of a pandemic, from which incarcerated people are at gravely heightened risk. Sadly, yet not surprisingly, the lobbyists who designed many of these bills have long had ties to the for-profit prison industry.

This right-wing lobby, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), first developed the “critical infrastructure” model legislation and has been pushing it on state governments around the country. They also played a key role in developing the “three strikes” bills that swelled the U.S. prison population in the 1990s, as well as so-called “Stand Your Ground” laws that contributed to the murders of Trayvon Martin in 2012 and Ahmaud Arbery in February.

Mass incarceration, police violence, and laws that suppress the right to dissent are part of an interlocking system of criminalization that harms and devalues Black lives. UUSC members can respond by supporting BIPOC-led efforts to resist criminalization in their own states and communities. Resources for plugging into this work are available through Love Resists, a joint campaign of UUSC and the UUA. You can also learn more about how to defend the rights of protesters by visiting our Right to Resist campaign page. This week, Movement for Black Lives is hosting a week of action that provides several options for supporting Black communities.

For far too long, Black people in the United States have lived under the shadow of a police state and racialized terror. It will not come to an end until our society stops directing more resources to institutions that arrest, detain, and incarcerate people, and invests instead in systems that enable human flourishing.

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About UUSC: Guided by the belief that all people have inherent worth and dignity, UUSC advances human rights globally by partnering with affected communities who are confronting injustice, mobilizing to challenge oppressive systems, and inspiring and sustaining spiritually grounded activism for justice. We invite you to join us in this journey toward realizing a better future!

Photo Credit: iStock – alejandrophotography

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