Clampdown on Dissent Intensifying and Spreading
Wave of State Laws Threaten Harsh Penalties for Common Forms of Protest
January 24, 2017 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us
Protesters against the construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline block a highway in near Cannon Ball, N.D., October 26, 2016. Photo: AP
April 14, 2015. A Protest to stop murder by police blocks train tracks.
In the days since the inauguration of the most unpopular U.S. president in modern times, and since the largest day of protest in U.S. history, the Trump-Pence regime and its supporters at different levels of this society are in no way “backing” off or trying to “bring more people into the fold.” No, the very opposite, they have expressed the clear intent—and are well on the road—to criminalizing dissident thought and speech, and are moving to enact harsh penalties for what are today widely engaged in forms of protest against police brutality and other injustices.
Even before becoming president Trump declared that people engaging in constitutionally protected free expression (burning the American flag) should go to jail for a year or lose their citizenship—a form of punishment that does not even exist now and is in violation of the U.S. Constitution. And revcom.us has pointed to how the Trumpistas have doubled down on their repressive program since then—the threats to arrest Madonna for publicly expressing anger at the regime; the arrest of 200-plus protesters at the inauguration who are now charged with felony riot, carrying up to ten years in jail; the blatant intimidation of news media from reporting facts that don’t fit the Trumpian “narrative.”
These are not just outrages in themselves—they are signals to the fascist forces in and out of government, on the federal and state levels, to expand and intensify the clampdown. The fact is that not only do these forces ideologically despise people rising up or speaking out against injustice—and for that matter, critical thinking in general—but they understand that the extremely oppressive and dangerous reorganization of the U.S. and the world that they are intent on carrying out is bound to arouse further fierce opposition from millions. And they understand that they cannot go forward with their whole program without crushing such opposition and creating an atmosphere where people are afraid to take to the streets… or even to speak up outside of their own homes.
In that “spirit,” reactionary forces in at least eight states have either introduced new laws, or “reinterpreted” existing ones, in order to make what are today common and effective acts of protest illegal. In the last few years, as waves of protest against police murder, oppression of Native people, environmental destruction and other outrages have swept society, tens of thousands of people have taken over city streets or intersections, or flooded onto highways, as a way of telling all of society that these outrages are completely unacceptable and to rally more people to the struggle. The proposed laws will treat these and other forms of nonviolent protest as major crimes that will carry heavy jail time, and some of the laws outright encourage and protect cops or reactionary civilians to violently attack and even kill protesters!
To cite just four examples:
- The Louisiana state government recently enacted the “Blue Lives Matter” law that puts police on the list of those protected under state hate crime laws supposedly designed to protect people who are attacked because of their race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity. (In reality the cops are commonly the perpetrators of such attacks, not the victims!) And now this law is being interpreted by some police to classify “resisting” or “battering” an officer as a “hate crime,” which can add between six months to five years of hard labor to the sentence. As is well known, “resisting” charges are usually brought if someone flinches when grabbed by an officer, or is used as a way to justify an arrest even when there are no other charges. They are also brought against people who have been brutalized by the cops—which is why in the sixties this charge was referred to as “malicious assault on a truncheon.”
- In North Dakota, legislators introduced a bill to give immunity from prosecution for drivers who run over protesters who are in, or “too close to,” the street or highway, as long as it is “an accident.” A lawmaker pushing the bill said such an “accident” could happen if a driver “punched the accelerator rather than the brakes.” So this is essentially deputizing every reactionary with a vehicle to murder protesters and then claim “I thought I was hitting the brakes.”
- In Indiana, a bill was introduced authorizing cops to use “any means necessary” [emphasis ours] to break up mass gatherings that block streets. As even Democratic legislators pointed out, this is an invitation to “Bull Connor”-style attacks on peaceful protest. (Bull Connor was sheriff in Birmingham, Alabama in the 1960s, famous for unleashing vicious dogs on protesting children and turning fire hoses on demonstrators.)
- In Minnesota, two new laws are proposed. One would raise the penalty for nonviolent acts that block traffic to up to a year in jail. The other would make nonviolently “obstructing the legal process” (e.g., sitting in at a police station”) a crime punishable by “not less than 12 months” in jail.
Most state legislatures have been controlled for some time by Republi-fascists. The repressive words and deeds of Trump-Pence are signaling to them that “our time has come,” urging them on to pass more and more extreme repressive measures. So while some of these bills may not pass, or may be tweaked a little so as to at least loosely conform to existing constitutional law, they indicate the direction society is moving in, quite rapidly, and which will continue in leaps and bounds, locking down society and crushing dissent in a way never before seen in this country—unless and until this fascist regime is driven from power.
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