By Ashley K. Shelton / Truthout
At least 42 people who have protested the building of an 85-acre, $90 million police training facility in Atlanta, Georgia, have been charged with domestic terrorism. While demonstrators always fear being criminalized for exercising their constitutional right to stage protests, being charged with domestic terrorism has a particularly chilling effect. The move to charge protesters with domestic terrorism comes months after one protester, Manuel Paez Terán (who went by the name Tortuguita), was killed by police.
Across the United States, we are seeing a rise in laws that seek to squelch and criminalize protests. Since 2017, North Dakota has considered a series of anti-protest laws, including one that allows the state attorney general to bring police from out of town to respond to protests. In South Dakota, one law allows the state to prohibit protests of 20 people or more in certain circumstances. In 2021, Oklahoma legislators passed a bill protecting motorists who hit protesters. Legislators in Florida, North Carolina, North Dakota and Tennessee have also considered legislation protecting motorists who hit protesters. While many of these measures failed, the fact that some legislators think it’s acceptable for drivers to hit people with their cars merely for exercising their First Amendment right to peaceably assemble is ludicrous.
Those aren’t the only states that have considered or passed laws criminalizing protests. Since January 2017, 45 states have considered 267 bills that restrict the right to protest, according to the International Center for Not-For-Profit Law. Currently, at least 39 laws restrict the right to protest, including laws that limit where people can protest, laws that provide immunity for motorists who harm protesters, laws that enact penalties for protests near oil and gas pipelines and other critical infrastructure, laws seeking to have organizers who plan demonstrations held financially responsible for the costs of protests, laws that provide overly broad definitions of a riot, etc. That is not by mistake; we are seeing a coordinated effort to silence dissent in every state, every city and every jurisdiction.
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We must be clear that anti-protest laws are not about safety; they are about silencing dissent. They are specifically designed to silence people who are poor and people who are Black or from other marginalized communities. If we do not resist such measures and do all we can to stop them, we will see escalating campaigns to silence Black people, people of color, religious minorities and other marginalized groups. Once that happens, our communities will have no way to challenge laws that regulate many to second-class status.
There is much to unpack on this topic, so let’s start here: Why do people protest in the first place? In the U.S., we frequently see protests in response to white-supremacist and police-perpetrated violence, as well as in response to efforts to strip away rights from women, people of color, LGBTQ folks and religious minorities. The nation witnessed coast-to-coast protests after Donald Trump was elected president. Once he instituted the Muslim travel ban, blocking migration to the U.S. for people from Muslim-majority countries, there was another slew of protests. Certainly, a series of demonstrations have occurred in response to fatal police shootings or other instances of police-perpetrated violence. The latter has happened so frequently that Black people find themselves in a constant state of seeing, processing and challenging police shootings.
When Trayvon Martin was killed in Sanford, Florida, in 2012, we saw a host of young people with the Dream Defenders take over the Florida state capitol. When Michael Brown was killed in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, we saw a series of uprisings throughout the country. When Freddie Gray was killed in Baltimore, Maryland, in 2015, the community resisted through protests. When Sandra Bland died in police custody in a Waller County, Texas, jail that same year, community members protested. When Alton Sterling was killed here in Louisiana in Baton Rouge in 2016, there were widespread protests. In New York City’s Bronx, police responded with violent force during protests in the summer of 2020 over the killing of George Floyd. The city will now pay $21,500 to each protester, and there were around 300 people participating in the demonstration.
In the same way that legislators are becoming savvier in terms of bills that curtail protests, organizers for justice must be creative, determined and unrelenting. If we do this, we will continue to not only win but defend our victories.
We are experiencing threats to basic rights like we have not seen in decades. We know that if we can reach people, we can compel them to action. One of the remarkable byproducts of social media is that it can ensure that millions — not only a handful of people — see a video recording within seconds. Video can also help build empathy among non-Black people to join the struggle for justice.
For instance, when the video circulated of former Minneapolis Police Department officer Derek Chauvin suffocating the life out of Floyd, most people who watched were outraged and heartbroken. The resulting protests were the largest, and likely the most diverse, in U.S. history. It was difficult for many to look away, and people demanded change.
Anti-protest bills are a direct result of effective racial justice organizers and multiracial demonstrations. We cannot lose sight of that fact. We must push local, state and federal governments to not only protect the right to peaceably assemble but address the reasons why people are demonstrating to begin with. As my colleague Tameka Greer of Memphis Artists for Change has said, “It is a sad state of affairs that the government will enact laws to prevent protests but will not pass laws to prevent the killing of Black people by police.”
The criminalization of dissent is not a new tactic in the U.S. or abroad. But that doesn’t mean that it is impossible to resist. We must continue organizing; continue identifying ways for our communities to engage in resistance movements; and continue educating the masses on why movements to curtail our rights to peaceably assemble hurt us all, not just Black people.
More than anything else, we cannot give in to fear. We cannot fear these efforts and thereby allow legislators who are out of step with the people to have their way. We must resist and expose — today, tomorrow and forever.
Ashley K. Shelton
Ashley K. Shelton is the founder and president of the Power Coalition for Equity & Justice and a member of the Black Southern Women’s Collaborative.