A Riot is the Language of the Unheard

It is time to stop killing people of color. It is time to do away with legislation that causes yet more suffering for communities of color.

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An artistic depiction of a protest in Thailand

Photo: Pssyppl / Instagram

Protesting. It is in our DNA. Regardless of whether you lean left or right, humans have been engaging in acts of civil unrest since time began. And, Americans have been right in the mix since Jamestown—America’s first colony—was established in 1607. In fact, the first recorded act of civil unrest in the colonies took place almost 400 years to the day when on March 22, 1622 the Powaton people clashed with colonists because of the multiple abuses suffered at the colonists' hands. The history of America is replete with violent clashes between colonists and Native Americans as the colonists looked to take by violence, both their agricultural successes and their land.  Centuries ago, America’s native population would be the first among many communities yet to come that would suffer within her borders at the hands of white people.

In 1787, representatives from the 13 colonies met to make changes to the Articles of Confederation. Instead of amending the Articles, the Constitution, along with its Bill of Rights, was created. First among these rights is the freedom to speak out against those who govern and the abuses suffered at their hands. And, while we hear an awful lot about freedom of speech, the conversation does not often turn to our constitutional right to assemble—and we do have one.

“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.”—First Amendment

As much as we have an individual freedom of speech, we have the right to gather with like-minded individuals and speak as one against policies we do not agree with. The right to protest is woven into the very fabric of this country.  Some 225 plus years later, it remains the most visible form of resistance that we have.

Although acts of racism and the indiscriminate slaughter of people of color have been occurring for centuries, the May 25, 2020 death of George Floyd—who lost his life because a store clerk accused him of trying to pass a counterfeit $20—was a catalyst for many, as well as the last straw for others. And, rightly so. On average, the number of black men who are killed by law enforcement officers is five times that of white men. And, even if Mr. Floyd was guilty of trying to pass counterfeit currency, even if he was trying to pass a whole suitcase of counterfeit money, his death, and the manner in which it occurred, is in no way justified. Not then, not ever.

In the wake of Mr. Floyd’s death, protests erupted throughout the country. And, there is no dispute that a few of those ended in violence. Would we prefer that this were not the case?  Indeed, we would. Is looting and burning down a city the answer? No, of course not. But, the protests and riots are the centuries old cry for justice from those who have been the least likely to receive it. And, until such time as America’s white community faces 400+ years of prejudice, institutionalized racism, and violence at the hands of the government and those meant to protect them, we do not get to pass judgment on how a community of people react to being slaughtered and brutalized with impunity. We just don’t.

“[I]n the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity.”—Martin Luther King, Jr., 1967 Stanford Commencement Speech

According to the International Center for Not-For-Profit Law,  as of last week, there have been 30 anti-protest bills enacted in 16 states:

Arkansas: HB 1321, HB 1578; Florida: HB1/SB 484; Indiana: SB 471; Kansas: SB 172; Kentucky: HB 44; Louisiana: HB 727; Mississippi: HB 1243; Missouri: HB 355, HB 1413; North Dakota: SB 2044, HB 1426, HB 1293, HB 1304; Ohio: SB 33; Oklahoma: HB 1674, HB 1123, HB 2128; South Dakota: SB 151, HB 1117, SB 189, SB 176; Tennessee: HB 8005/SB 8005, SB 264, SB 0902; Texas: HB 3557; Utah: SB 173; West Virginia: HB 4615, HB 4618; Wisconsin: AB 426;

Interestingly, seven of the governors who have enacted anti-protests bills have law degrees. Why is that important? It is important because every law degree comes with the study of constitutional law. As such, those seven governors know full well that anti-protest bills come with a serious risk of running afoul of the First Amendment yet they have enacted them anyway.

Additionally, there are a further 68 bills currently pending in 27 states:

Alabama: HB 516, HB 445, SB 155, HB 133; Arizona: SB 1784, HB 2309; Arkansas: HB 1508; Connecticut: HB 6455; Georgia: HB 289; Illinois: HB 3409;Indiana: HB 1205, SB 198, SB 34; Iowa: SF 534, SSB 1140, HF 251, HF 430;Maryland: HB 645; Minnesota: HF 1967/SF 1285, HB 1558, HF 355, HF 466/SF 2381, HF 254/SF 386, HF 129/SF 1378; Missouri: HB 1441, SB 66, HB 56, SB 26; Montana: HB 481; Nebraska: LB 111; Nevada: AB 168; New Hampshire: HB 197; New Jersey: S 3261, A 4991, A 3760 ; New York: A 5121; North Carolina: HB 333, HB 321, SB 300, SB 238; Ohio: HB 109, HB22, SB 41, SB 16; Oklahoma: HB 1561, HB 1565, HB 1578, HB 2095, HB 1822, HB 2094, HB 2096, HB 2215, HB 2464, SB 806, SB 15; Oregon: HB 3329; Rhode Island: SB 404, HB 5001; South Carolina: HB 3491; Tennessee: SB 451/HB 881, HB 513/SB 843; Texas: HB 3599, HB 2747, SB 912/HB 3652, HB 2461; Washington: SB 5456, SB 5310; Wisconsin: SB 296

Many of the pending and enacted bills provide immunity from prosecution of someone who drives their car into a crowd that results in injury or death. This provision is especially egregious in light of the fact that it has the potential to have exonerated the man who drove his car into the Charlotte, North Carolina crowd in 2017 that resulted in the death of Heather Heyer. The protest, at which Ms. Heyer died, was organized by white supremacists who took to the streets to protest the removal of the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The white supremacist protestors who attended came with tiki-torches meant to emulate those carried by the KKK of years past. It is not a stretch to presume that the GOP cares more about preserving the racist monuments of the past instead of dismantling the racist and oppressive policies of today.

Conveniently, the GOP has willfully forgotten that it was their supporters who marked President Obama’s election by erecting effigies of our first black president hanging from nooses across the country. There is not a more violent message sent to a person of color than to mimic one of the most violent actions taken against them. And, that behavior was mirrored around the world. And, during the protests that followed President Obama’s inauguration, property was destroyed across the country, for example in Pennsylvania, Texas, and North Carolina, and a predominantly black church was torched in Massachusetts. Where were their anti-protests bills then? Where was their outcry against violence in the streets? So long as the perpetrators are white, their cafeteria-style disdain for protesting is firmly locked away.

Additionally, in order to be charged and prosecuted, a protestor does not even necessarily have to be engaging in violent or potentially harmful conduct—they just need to be present. For some of these bills, the net they cast for those who can be prosecuted goes even farther afield. The prospect of facing charges under these bills for organizing a protest is a real possibility for some activists. That prospect has the potential to silence people who would otherwise speak out against their legislators which may be a large part of the point to begin with. And, it is up to law enforcement on the scene to determine who is in violation of these bills and who is not. Given the broad range of authority left to officers, there will likely be multitudes who face charges for simply organizing an event. And, if the last 5 years have taught us nothing, we know that those tasked with protecting us who do not share our values may find the new laws useful in silencing opposition. And, that should be chilling.

The bills also provide a brand new class of misdemeanor and felony charges that could result in a loss of voting rights, access to state benefits such as cash assistance and/or food stamps, and student loans. A few of these bills include provisions that would bar state employment for those individuals who have been charged and convicted under the new laws that these bills create.

In reality, these anti-protest laws are not meant as a measure of protection for American citizens or an enhancement of their livelihood. They are GOP-supported pieces of legislation meant to silence the opposition. Period. And, the opposition has always been black and brown people. They have been the GOP’s greatest threat since Reconstruction and remain so to this day.

Instead of our government taking steps to abolish racism and the policies that support and enshrine it, they would rather punish the very individuals who are most impacted by institutionalized oppression.

But, it is never too late to do the right thing. It is never too late to change the course of history. It is never too late to end the suffering.

It is time to stop killing people of color. It is time to do away with legislation that causes yet more suffering for communities of color.

It is time that we hear, once and for all, the words of Reverend King and leant our ear to the language of the unheard.

Let us begin with the small step of not enacting yet more racially motivated legislation.

Let us begin by recognizing the right of communities of color to simply breathe.

For those states in which these unconstitutional bills have been enacted, send stateContact your Governor and/or state legislators to 50409 to tell your Governor and state legislators that it is time to lift our knee off of the neck of the oppressed. Remind them that the freedom to assemble is enshrined in the Constitution and that their prejudicial legislation does nothing to solve the problems that undergird the protest in the first place. Remind them that a governing body that would rather trample the rights of its constituency is not a governing body of, by, or for the people. Say no to more racist policies and yes to dismantling the oppressive policies of the past. Or if you can't find your own words, I started a campaign:

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or text state to 50409