May 20, 2024

Obligate Law

Professional Law Makers

How and why legislators are suddenly trying to crack down on peaceful protest

4 min read
How and why legislators are suddenly trying to crack down on peaceful protest

New York Assemblywoman Stacey Pheffer Amato (D) recently introduced a bill that would designate as domestic terrorism the criminal offense of deliberately blocking “a public road, bridge, transportation facility or tunnel.” The bill also increases the current penalty range from that of a class A misdemeanor (maximum jail time of 364 days) to that of a class D felony (up to seven years in prison).

Representatives in Arizona, Tennessee, Minnesota and Washington have introduced similar legislation, targeting protestors by enhancing the offense class and corresponding penalties attached to blocking roadways.

If enacted, activists convicted of these offenses could become felons and potentially serve significant prison time. Even after release, they would be branded felons, which additional permanent consequences, such as limited voting rights and difficulty in securing employment and housing.

Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” provides a detailed indictment of how the criminal code has been amended and subsequently used to increase prosecutions and punishments, primarily targeting non-whites. Although neutral on its face, the disproportionate impact on communities of color, and the corresponding disenfranchisement, illustrate unmistakable and intentional structural, socio-economic and political marginalization.

It is not by chance that peaceful protests are being met with such a remarkably draconian level of punishment. In fact, there is historical precedent for this genre of criminalization. It is a transparent attempt to mute political opposition with the threat of prosecution. It would ultimately render activists unable to fully participate as citizens with equal rights within civil discourse.

These Orwellian bills are being introduced just as protests in favor of a ceasefire in Gaza gain momentum both nationally and internationally. While the language appears neutral on its face, the timing exposes the legislative intent — to eliminate activists’ ability to advocate for Palestinian human rights by engaging in strategic, non-violent civil disobedience.

Each day brings a new deluge of horrific stories and harrowing imagery as the number of dead and injured rises into the tens of thousands and 1.9 million Gazans are displaced from their homes. Amid this humanitarian catastrophe, the U.S. has even cut aid to UNRWA, one of the few non-governmental agencies capable of bringing humanitarian aid into Gaza, while approving an additional $3.8 billion dollars for Israel with no corresponding aid to Palestine.

The U.S. also vetoed a UN resolution calling for a ceasefire, despite UN experts’ allegations against Israel of extrajudicial assassinations, rape, and denial of basic humanitarian needs in Gaza such as food, medicine, and menstrual pads.

In this climate, it is no surprise that many activists rely upon protest and civil disobedience as the only strategic means to draw attention to and change the tacit policy of the U.S. in supporting and enabling what many scholars have called ethnic cleansing and genocide.

And these bills are being introduced during Black History Month, which commemorates the use of civil disobedience as a tool to achieve social and political progress. Rosa Parks’ courage to sit down in the whites-only part of a bus, defying the racist Jim Crow era segregationist laws and leading to her arrest, sparked a movement of collective non-violent action among a broad coalition of activists.

Engaging in organized civil disobedience, founded in principles of Martin Luther King’s non-violence, restraint, and de-escalation, is not for the faint of heart. Advocacy, protesting, and collective civil disobedience in support of Palestinian liberation has come at a significant personal and professional cost to many activists.

Just as during the Civil Rights Era, this form of civic engagement continues to be a cornerstone of profound bravery, moral courage, and civic engagement.

Draconian and disproportionate criminal punishment for nonviolent political dissidence thus eradicates even the façade of a functional marketplace of ideas. It deters civic engagement, while encouraging a monolithic political view and a speech vacuum. It has no place in a free society.

How and why legislators are suddenly trying to crack down on peaceful protest

To be sure, Assemblywoman Amato has every right to hold her own personal political beliefs about what the International Court of Justice has determined could plausibly be a genocide against Palestinians. But she cannot weaponize her status as an elected official to over-criminalize political speech with which she does not agree.

Elected officials must stop using the criminal-legal system to politically disenfranchise an entire group in order to further their own political agenda.

Huma Yasin is a criminal defense attorney, former public defender, author of the forthcoming book “Conspiracy: The True Story of the Fort Dix Five” and a Public Voices fellow with The OpEd Project.

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