By: Attorney Monica Harris
The right to protest is fundamental to American democracy. The very first protest, the Boston Tea Party, occurred on December 16, 1773 and sparked the American Revolution which led to America’s independence from British rule. The right to protest is so entwined in who America is that the Founding Fathers encompassed that right within the first few words of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution:
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.
Since that first protest in 1773, American citizens have used peaceful protest as a means to air grievances and urge government action. From the Women’s Suffrage Parade in 1913 to The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 to the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965 to the March for Our Lives in 2018 to the peaceful Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, peaceful protests have been effective in raising awareness, changing public opinion, creating institutional change and, in some instances, influencing legislation. Peaceful protests created and changed America. That said, it came as a tremendous disappointment to learn that the 46th Governor of the State of Florida was proposing legislation allegedly aimed at criminalizing “rioting” and “looting,” but having the unintended (or perhaps intended) consequence of censoring or retaliating against peaceful protestors.
The proposed Anti-Mob bill, officially entitled “Combating Violence, Disorder and Looting and Law Enforcement Protection Act,” makes it a felony to engage in “violent or disorderly assemblies.” While I am not in agreement with violent protests of any kind, the term “disorderly” is not defined and, arguably, is likely left up to the interpretation of the arresting officer. The proposed bill also expands the controversial Stand Your Ground law to include the use of lethal force for looting, criminal mischief and arson "that results in the interruption or impairment of a business operation," and more troubling the proposed bill appears to protect a driver who “unintentionally causes injury or death to a person who obstructs" traffic. Concerned yet? You should be.
I have a host of problems with the proposed bill. Top of list: the bill is arguably unconstitutional. However, the larger more concerning issue is the Anti-Mob bill does nothing to address the underlying reasons FOR the protest: the unchecked and unpunished murders of unarmed black men and women by law enforcement. In light of the social unrest and racial reckoning that rocked this country after the tragic murders of Ahmaud Arbury and Breonna Taylor, followed by the live streamed torture and murder of George Floyd, my hope was elected officials – (D) and (R) – would initiate dialogue with law enforcement and community leaders to find middle ground to tackle and address the well-known and documented soured relationship between law enforcement and communities of color. Sadly, but unsurprisingly, rather than propose legislation or convene a task force aimed at tackling the root cause of the protests (police brutality against black and brown bodies), the Florida Governor heeded the call from Washington: silence dissent and discontent in favor of authoritarianism guised as law and order. This silencing in a democracy should not be.
A “government of the people, by the people and for the people” is how Abraham Lincoln defined our democracy on November 19, 1863 during his Gettysburg address. The beauty of our democracy is that it consists OF the people, is created BY the people and [should] work FOR the people. As such, the power of our democracy lies with the people, not with politicians. Legislation that seeks to quash dissent and silence discontent is an attempt to take power from the people and when elected officials attempt to take our power – our democracy is at risk. In my estimation, the proposed Anti-Mob bill is meant to quash dissent, to silence discontent, to take the power of protest from the people – from us.
If our democracy is to survive, if we are to truly be a government of, by and for the people, we must own our power. We must use our voices- through peaceful protest inside and outside the ballot box. We must ensure elected officials respect dissent, examine and address discontent and encourage peaceful protests. And for those elected officials who seek through legislation to take our power, to silence our voices- we must take our protest to the ballot box and vote them out. 2022 soon comes.