While the 1st Amendment to the United States’ constitution is still the standard by which most of the world is judged in terms of freedom of speech, religion, assembly and petition, it has often provoked controversy in the country itself. In recent years, much of the ink spilled and talking heads engaged in agonized conversation about its protections come at free speech issues from the right, where a loud minority excels at playing the victim.
When far-right speakers like Ben Shapiro or Charlie Kirk are invited by conservative groups on college campuses to paid speaking engagements and this provokes protests from students and staff, it’s rarely mentioned in corporate media that these activities are also protected by the 1st Amendment. It should also be noted that being paid to speak at a university is not guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution and it is the choice of administrators at these institutions, who ultimately determine whether the problems caused are worth the trouble and expense of hosting these kinds of speakers.
In the meantime, a much greater threat to other protections afforded by the 1st Amendment, most prominently the right of assembly, is ongoing, especially at the state level in the more rural mid-west and southeast of the U.S.
Consider the actions of law enforcement and private security companies at Standing Rock in 2016, where hundreds of peaceful water protectors, the majority of whom were indigenous, faced arrest and assault with tear gas, watercannons and rubber bullets for exercising their constitutional rights (and, in this case, treaty rights) in creating and occupying a number of camps to stop the controversial Dakota Access pipeline project from cutting through their lands.
After winning a temporary victory from the Obama administration that was soon reversed by the current president, many activists assumed that, despite the injuries caused, which would be widely condemned if they occurred in a nation designated an enemy like Iran, these tactics, and others, including introducing agents provocateurs and using high tech surveillance methods, were likely to be used against activists in the future.
In the aftermath of Standing Rock, state lawmakers in North Dakota even attempted to pass a law allowing motorists to ‘accidentally’ drive over and through protesters blocking roads. Similar legislation was also introduced in a number of other states during the same period.
As reported recently by the Guardian, who obtained internal government documents, authorities in Montana are gearing up to prevent a repeat of what happened at Standing Rock by targeting a likely protest movement centered on part of the Keystone XL pipeline that will pass through the state, with law enforcement officials labeling protesters ‘domestic terrorists’ and saying that they will stop them, “By any means necessary.”
One can easily understand the worry provoked in both indigenous communities at the front lines of this fight and their allies in Montana and further afield by the plans to expand the pipeline as an already completed stretch of the project in North Dakota has already ruptured, spilling 9000 barrels of dirty Canadian tarsands oil that will have a long term impact on nearby wetlands.
As Alex Rate, legal director of the ACLU in Montana told the Guardian, “There is a lot of muscle behind this effort to make sure that Keystone is constructed. There are historically marginalized communities, primarily indigenous folks, who have grave concerns about the impact of this pipeline on their sovereignty, their resources, their religion and culture. They have a first amendment right to assemble and make their viewpoints heard.”
Some of the protesters at Standing Rock faced felony rioting charges, which is beginning to seem like a favorite tool of American authorities to quash dissent.
In an earlier case that received wide media coverage, protesters at the inauguration of the current occupant of the White House in Washington D.C. were also charged with felony rioting.
While some may have engaged in property destruction during the heated protests, they were a small minority used to criminalize the majority, over 200 of whom faced or face serious charges, most troubling those of felony rioting, forcing them to put their lives on hold while their cases slowly progress through the counts.
In a very recent example of the use of the same charge to criminalize dissent, in this case regarding both mass incarceration and the criminalization of migrants and refugees, a chilling example occurred with Tuscon, Arizona based activists in August who were not confronted at the time by authorities, held a ‘noise protest’ and displayed a large banner to show solidarity with those inside Pima County Adult Detention Complex, including a number of migrants detained by ICE.
As reported by Natasha Lennard of the Intercept, this act of solidarity, which is quite common throughout the country, eventually broke up and the protesters left the facility. As they going on their way, 12 of them were confronted by authorities who proceeded to arrest them on charges of felony rioting.
Glen Frieden, who is a spokesman for those who have come to be called the Tuscon 12 told Lennard, “These charges are clearly part of a troubling pattern. Increasingly, police and prosecutors are levying accusations of ‘rioting’ against any political activity that challenges the existing state of affairs. It happened at Standing Rock, it happened at the protests against Donald Trump’s inauguration, and now we see it here in Tucson.”
While it would be nice to think that the current crackdown on protest is nothing but a temporary aberration, the result of the excesses of the current U.S. president, it began long before and, although the specific circumstances may be different, it’s happening here in Canada and other western countries, as well. Just last week in Australia it was revealed that 3 activists with Extinction Rebellion in Australia are being held for at least two weeks without bail in Queensland, setting a terrible precedent for protest and civil disobedience in that country.
With activism more and more referred to as a form of terrorism on the right, the left will need to take local and state elections more seriously to halt the trend. In the American context it’s important to take back the 1st Amendment from the right and their centrist enablers, who only cite it out of convenience and ignore it in the name of ‘civility’ when their political opponents demand the same rights and protections.