Squelching Protest

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MTT News's picture
Michelle Phillips

Protest is part of our fiber, our existence, as Americans. Our country was literally founded on protest, specifically a monarchy that imposed high taxes, exported resources, and ruled from afar. 

The Minutemen were adamant about overthrowing the oppressive British government. Most of us are well versed in some version of revolutionary history, even if it is just Paul Revere riding through the streets announcing that the “the British are Coming!” We know that they were successful in their coup against the throne. 

When the forefathers set about drafting the Bill of Rights, the very first Amendment was concerned free speech, including the right to peaceful protest. It reads: 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.

“Congress shall make no law…” But what about states? 

In Iowa, my former state, protesters fought against the  Dakota Access Pipeline, which was to go through Native American land. Protesters were arrested, tear gas deployed and people shot with rubber bullets by security crews hired by the company that owned the pipeline and local law enforcement to disperse the crowd. 

In response to the protests, Iowa became one of nine states to pass law making it illegal to protest oil and gas infrastructure. Fourteen more states, including Wisconsin, are working on similar bills, directly related to climate and environmental protests. To me this shows just how much politics and corporate money, particularly in the fossil fuel industry, are intertwined. 

I just learned about these Wisconsin bills, which are currently making their way through the legislative process. The list of backers includes legislators who are ALEC members, trade groups lobbyists and construction related unions.

The bills are: AB 444: Mandatory sanctions for campus protesters–introduced on Sept. 13 and SB 386: New penalties for protests near gas and oil pipelines–introduced on Sept. 5. To read the full bills, visit docs.legis.wisconsin.gov and type the bill number in the search window.

This is not the first time Wisconsin legislators have tried to pass environmental protest bills. According to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law’s website (incl.org), the state tried to pass boarder bills in 2017 as they related to riots, including redefining the definition of “riot” and making it illegal to block a street during said riot, and again, imposing mandatory sanctions for campus protesters. The bills failed. 

These state laws, to me, just seem like a way to sidestep the Constitution and eliminate our “unalienable rights.” It will continue like a tsunami through our country if we do not challenge it, stand against it, and take it all the way to the US Supreme Court. 

I often wonder, looking around and through the modern world, what our forefathers would have thought about our society and how we have manipulated the constitution to suit our narrative. This was most true when I went to Philadelphia a few years ago, walking the same stone path as my childhood hero Benjamin Franklin, drinking a period cocktail in a worn, wooden booth of a bar that our founding fathers frequented, or stepping back into a long-ago time at the Betsy Ross house. It all seemed so primitive and foreign, intermingled with skyscrapers, buses and cheesesteak shacks.

One thing I am sure of, the founders of this country wanted us to enjoy the freedom to speak freely against the government, against tyranny and against those things which threaten our democracy. And most importantly, they expected us to defend those rights. Don’t let them down.

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