Commentary

In the Trump age, civil disobedience is cast as ‘terrorism’ to squelch protest

In the Trump age, civil disobedience is cast as ‘terrorism’ to squelch protest
Photo: Loyd Fox/The Baltimore Sun via AP

“An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.”
— Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. 

The United States Constitution’s First Amendment grants several specific rights:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

If conservative legislators in North Dakota have their way, “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” could cost them their lives.  

North Dakota state Representative Keith Kempenich introduced a bill (HB 1203) that would make it legal (now get this doublespeak) for a driver to run into protesters who block traffic, resulting in injury or death, if that driver does this “unintentionally.” In that case, there would be no liability for damages.

Kempenich said he was motivated to take this action when the Dakota Access Pipeline protesters took to the streets to block his constituents from traveling the roadways. He told CNN:

It turned from a protest to basically terrorism on the roadways, and the bill got introduced for people to be able to drive down the roads without fear of running into somebody and having to be liable for them. If people stay off the roadway, it has nothing to do with you. [But] if you’re on the roadway trying to intimidate some people, then you’ve got an issue.

Kempenich and other legislators who support the proposal equate nonviolent protests that may result in some inconvenience for drivers to “terrorist” tactics. It represents another of those “alternative facts” as underscored recently by Kellyanne Conway, President Trump’s White House Counselor.

The Dakota Access Pipeline as designed would carry oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota and Montana across the plains to Illinois. Protestors argue that a completed pipeline would desecrate spiritual ancestral lands, endanger the water supply, and unfairly burden the Standing Rock Sioux nation, which would gain nothing from any economic development resulting from the project.

The situation and choice of location to place the proposed pipeline beneath the Missouri River are very complex and much more intersectional. Originally, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers planned to cross the pipeline under the Missouri River north of Bismarck, North Dakota, but decided to reposition the route due to potential threats to the drinking water in the vastly-majority-white municipality of Bismarck.

The Corps decided, instead, to direct the pipeline under the river just upstream from the northern perimeter of the Standing Rock Sioux nation’s land. The Corps made its decision after failing its federal mandate to consult with the those who would be most affected by the pipeline: the Standing Rock Sioux people who apparently matter far less to the government than the white people around Bismarck.

The United States government set aside this land for the Sioux — land it had previously stolen from native peoples – in the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie. The placement of the proposed pipeline stands as yet another incident in the long and brutal track record of the U.S. government inflicting physical and cultural genocide on First Nation peoples.

Outside of North Dakota, bills intending to intentionally run over the First Amendment by discouraging non-violent protest have been proposed and introduced in other states, including Minnesota, Indiana, and Iowa.

In Minnesota, the Republican-majority legislature passed a measure that now permits local governments to sue convicted protestors for the costs incurred by law enforcement agencies. The Republican state legislator, Rep. Nick Zerwas, who introduced the bill said:

“If you want to block a freeway, you’re going to jail, and when you get out, you’re gonna get a bill.” 

In Indiana, legislators proposed a measure to allow police to clear roadways “by any means necessary,” and a proposed Iowa bill would make it easier for law enforcement officials to impose criminal charges against anyone blocking traffic. 

People who engage in civil disobedience should understand the risks involved, and most do. As a long-time political organizer from the 1960s onward, as an anti-war, LGBT, anti-racism, social justice activist, I have studied the philosophies and strategies of the abolitionist, suffrage and first-third wave feminist, union workers, civil rights, and other progressive movements.  

For example, we in ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) conducted highly visible demonstrations, often involving acts of nonviolent civil disobedience in which we on occasion placed ourselves at risk for arrest and even injury. ACT UP/New York, as an early example, staged a “sit-in” on Wall Street in 1987 during rush hour to protest price gouging by pharmaceutical companies for antiviral drugs.

Our purpose was not to “make nice.” It was, rather, to make people uncomfortable and angry. We wanted to cause inconvenience by waking people up to realities around us. We challenged not only the status quo, but the complacency and, yes, the collusion of the so-called “bystanders” who would rather not have been inconvenienced by having to face the injustices surrounding them.  

In our AIDS activism, we not only challenged traditional means of scientific knowledge dissemination, but more importantly, we questioned the very mechanisms by which scientists conducted research, and, therefore, we helped redefine the very meaning of “science.”

The legislative tactics used by an increasing number of states to discourage nonviolent peaceful protest will have the reverse effect since it will empower increasing numbers of people to stand up to these injustices.

Joining together with my remarkable, dedicated, and steadfast friends in acts of civil disobedience has continually made real for me Margaret Mead’s insightful and stirring statement:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

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