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The Anti-Protest Backlash

Republican lawmakers are trying to criminalize dissent. Does this herald a larger and more dangerous backlash against free speech?

Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty

If there’s one thing that has emboldened anti-Trump activists in the early days of the new administration, it’s the fact that their protests are working. The day after the inauguration, four million women and men took to the streets of Washington and a host of other cities in what proved to be the largest demonstration in U.S. history. The day after Trump signed his Muslim ban, protesters flocked to airports across the country—and they did so again the next day, and the day after that. To date, nearly every one of Trump’s major decisions has been greeted by loud and sustained resistance.

The grassroots revolts have proven effective. The protests helped prod Trump to walk back part of his travel ban, inspired Democrats to wage long and vocal confirmation battles against Betsy DeVos and Jeff Sessions, and even forced Trump to cancel a trip to a Harley-Davidson plant in Milwaukee after demonstrators threatened to greet him at the factory. In perhaps the best litmus test for Trump’s discomfort, the president took to Twitter to voice his outrage: “Professional anarchists, thugs and paid protesters are proving the point of the millions of people who voted to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”

Now, however, Republican lawmakers in at least ten states are working to shut down such shows of opposition. In Washington, Doug Ericksen—a state senator who served as Trump’s deputy campaign director in the state—has introduced a bill that would increase the penalties for anyone causing an “economic disruption,” such as blocking traffic. Ericksen told The Seattle Times that the legislation is specifically designed to punish environmentalists, tribal activists, and others who have blocked oil and coal trains and pipeline projects—actions he denounces as “economic terrorism.”

GOP lawmakers in other states are pushing similar bills. In Indiana, proposed legislation would empower police officers to remove protesters obstructing traffic “by any means necessary.” In North Dakota, where activists have blocked roadways to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline, a bill granting immunity from prosecution to any driver who “unintentionally” hits and kills protesters—a measure detractors took to calling the “Mow the Protesters Down Bill”—narrowly failed. And in Minnesota, where Black Lives Matter activists have marched on the Mall of America and shut down I-94 to protest police shootings, two new bills would increase the penalties for obstructing highways and allow cities to sue protesters to recover the cost of policing public demonstrations.

In North Carolina, protesters seemingly inspired by Game of Thrones followed former Governor Pat McCrory around during inauguration weekend chanting “Shame! Shame! Shame!” In response, State Senator Daniel Bishop announced that he would introduce legislation to make it a crime to “threaten, intimidate, or retaliate against a present or former North Carolina official” while they are performing their jobs. Bishop views such protests as a dangerous scourge, rather than a well-established and vital part of the democratic process: In a statement to the Raleigh News & Observer, he characterized the activists as a “chanting mob” of “ubiquitous leftist rioters.” Criminalizing dissent is necessary, he added, because “lines are being crossed.”

Bishop and other GOP legislators expressed no such concerns, of course, when Tea Party activists shouted down politicians during town hall meetings over Obamacare, or showed up armed at rallies to protest gun control. The current Republican desire to shut down protests is motivated by politics, not principles. “There are people who have this sense of decorum,” says David Meyer, a sociology professor at the University of California who studies protest movements. “But it tends to be violated by their political opponents, rather than people on their side doing exactly the same thing.”

The proposed laws are at best unnecessary—there are already legal provisions, for instance, to protect motorists who inadvertently strike pedestrians—and at worst unconstitutional. The real purpose is to discourage dissent. States have long tried to use legal means to obstruct political protests, going back to the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the antiwar protests of the 1970s. “It sends the wrong message to protesters exercising their constitutional right to be in public spaces, to assemble, and to speak,” says Jennifer Cook, policy director of the North Dakota branch of the ACLU.

The bigger question is whether the wave of anti-protest legislation heralds a larger and more dangerous backlash against free speech. Trump himself has encouraged outright violence against protesters—during his campaign, he advised supporters to “rough up” demonstrators at his rallies. The president’s personal vindictiveness, combined with the repressive legislation being introduced at the state level, are designed to frighten protesters. But they are also the best indication yet of just how much the protesters have frightened Trump.