USA: Lives at risk as right to protest crushed

USA: Lives at risk as right to protest crushed - Civic Space

Credit: Tverdokhlib / Shutterstock

The right to protest continues to come under sustained attack across the United States, reveals our new analysis. 

Using this research, ARTICLE 19 set out to put these legislative efforts in their historical context; analyse their legality under International and U.S. constitutional law; document commonalities between states; and discern the motivations behind the laws.

Nearly half (124) of all those bills have been introduced since June 2020, following the widespread protests that called for justice after the murder of George Floyd. Many of those bills target protests led by people who already face discrimination in US society – from Standing Rock and Black Lives Matter, to more recent reproductive rights activists protesting in the wake of the Supreme Court Dobbs vs Jackson decision.  As a result, they reduce the already limited space these groups have to make their concerns heard. 

Quinn McKew, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19, said: 

The United States was founded by protesters seeking justice. Across generations, popular protest has achieved vital social change, from giving women the right to vote to ending school segregation. Constitutionally protected by the First Amendment, protesting is a deeply cherished American value that is critical to our shared history.

And yet, across the country, lawmakers have launched an all out war on protest. With the aid of sections of the media, prominent politicians demonize and stigmatize brave communities who march, rapidly changing laws to criminalize their acts of courage. And they don’t even try to hide it – many boast that these laws are directly intended to silence the most marginalized people in our society. Have we abandoned our principles and communities entirely?

Analyzed together, the bills show a clear larger, nationwide trend in continuous attempts to restrict protest: from overly broad and vague definitions (in at least 31 states and at least 95 pieces of legislation) to disproportionate penalties for acts such as blocking public right of ways – tactics that have historically been used to ensure leaders pay attention. 

At least 18 states have proposed laws that grant some form of immunity to drivers who injure or kill protesters. Legislation has also been considered that would encourage aggressive state actions against protesters: either through giving law enforcement officers immunity for injuring or killing protesters or through holding government officials liable for damage or injury resulting from a protest. 

Twelve states and the federal government have also tried to introduce bills that allow state or local government employees to be dismissed if convicted of protest-related offenses, deny them public assistance, or bar them from holding public office. 

Constance Paige Young, anti-racism activist and a survivor of the racist terrorist attack in Charlottesville in 2017, said: 

I’ve felt deeply troubled and alarmed by recent state laws aiming to provide civil or criminal immunity to people who use their cars as weapons against protestors. This kind of violence is terrorism and should be seen as morally reprehensible on both sides of the aisle. It must never be tolerated or protected. Protest is an essential part of a functioning democracy and efforts to undermine the safety of protestors must end immediately.

So far, the vast majority of those legislative attempts have been unsuccessful. However,  many of those damaging legislative efforts inspire and influence similar actions across the country. Such was the case with the Florida HB 1 bill, the first to successfully enact a law providing immunity to drivers who injure or kill protesters. After it was enacted, New Jersey, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Virginia all introduced similar legislation. The wording of the New Jersey bill was taken directly from HB 1 and while this bill was not enacted into law, it is only a matter of time before similar attempts succeed.

Quinn McKew continued: 

Restricting the right to protest is a betrayal of our founders and ancestors and it means we leave no space to listen to each other’s concerns. Today, we are facing a myriad of challenges around economic, social, and climate inequalities. If people feel ignored, or unheard, they are going to protest. 

The only thing that stops protests is when leaders actually listen to people’s concerns, and address them in a meaningful way. That’s what effective leaders do, and it’s how we come together and move forward as a country.

Hope still remains. Of the 247 bills that have been introduced at a state level, 195 have been defeated. Now more than ever, the state legislatures and the federal government need to ensure these regressive laws are repealed, that police brutality towards brave marchers is persecuted and that all of us in the United States can protest safely. 

Most importantly, our elected leaders need to start listening. A society that criminalizes protest can no longer  consider itself a democracy.

Read our report

The report is part of ARTICLE 19’s global #FreeToProtest campaign, which aims to increase respect for, and protection and fulfilment of, the right to protest.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a spokesperson,  please contact press@article19.org