Right to protest important tenet in Ohio, America at large
Hundreds protest at the historic Stonewall Inn. (Photo by Spencer Platt / Getty Images)
By Randy Cunningham
The rights to protest in Ohio have been under assault for the past three years as the state legislature has been on a major campaign to repeal those rights in bits and pieces.
The campaign has been in reaction to high-profile national protests such as the pipeline protests at Standing Rock, and the protests around the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
The campaign has been in the form of dozens of bills all with some common characteristics. First, they boost penalties for already existing laws such as trespassing, petty vandalism, disorderly conduct, or arson, during a protest or demonstration. Meaning a protest or demonstration is open to harsher legal penalties than any other public event.
The second feature of this legislation is it penalizes the organizers or organizations sponsoring events where the enhanced laws are violated, regardless of if they approved of the actions or not, with ruinous civil penalties. The intent of these bills is blatantly political. It is to shut up and shut down the activities of advocates and activists who the current powers that be at the statehouse do not like.
I, and many others, have been fighting these bills. I have given testimony before legislative committees, lobbied legislators, and organized and spoken at rallies against these laws. I want to share what I have learned from fighting these bills and attending protests both big and small.
First off, Americans in general do not like protests. This reflects our nations deep ambivalence about its alleged democratic traditions. We love the theory of democracy and freedom, but not the practice.
Praising democracy is easy. Practicing it is a whole different matter. Those who practice it find themselves in a meat grinder of rules and regulations, dead ends and closed doors. They soon figure out that the system is not designed to encourage democracy.
It is designed to discourage democracy. That is when they reach for the fire axe of protest and begin to splinter some of the closed doors.
One of the charges leveled at protests and demonstrations is that they are invitations to violence, chaos, and disorder. I have never been to a violent demonstration, and I have been going to them for over 50 years. Protests are open events. Protests are gloriously human. I have been to somber protests, and I have even been to protests that are humorous and that have people dancing down the street to a brass band.
But sometimes, as is true of any human activity, idiots try to take over and create havoc, which opens even an otherwise peaceful demonstrations to censure and law enforcement overkill. The guardians of order react to these situations as if civilization itself is in danger. It is telling that that they did not react as strongly when armed militia members protested mask mandates at the statehouse, and harassed Dr. Amy Acton at her house for the sin of trying to keep Ohioans alive during the pandemic.
America has a strong tradition of civil disobedience, that has been used to advance most of the rights that Americans take for granted. It does frequently lead to the breaking of laws, but it is non-violent, even when it is met with violence. America would not be America without it.
The height of hypocrisy are those enemies of protest who say they are all for protest and the right to dissent while they busily go about the work of dismantling those rights. In one hearing at the statehouse, the sponsor of a particularly draconian bill said that Martin Luther King, Jr., if alive, would have approved of it.
The goal of the proponents of these laws is intimidation. Intimidation by creating new legal minefields, that will regulate protest rights to death, while chilling the atmosphere for protests. The goal is stopping protests before they happen.
There is a new specter, however, looming over the right to protest and that is the deregulation of guns in Ohio. Or as a recent article in The Atlantic put it, it is the 2nd Amendment vs the 1st Amendment. Guns and protests do not mix, but we are seeing more instances such as we saw in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in the Kyle Rittenhouse case, and in Bethel, Ohio, during the summer of 2020, where an armed mob besieged a George Floyd demonstration. It was a miracle that no one was hurt or killed.
Protest may result in a trip to court. It should not cost you your life. The right to open carry is an invitation to bloodshed. The right to open carry is the right to intimidate your opponents. Partnered with repressive legislation, it is putting the squeeze on protest rights and democracy in Ohio. Democracy in all its raucousness, is better than the peace and quiet promised by authoritarians whether they are in Columbus or Moscow. It is time for democracy’s defenders to come the aid of protest rights, without which democracy will lose its power and meaning.
Randy Cunningham is an activist with Defending Democracy and Dissent in Cleveland, Ohio. He is the author of Democratizing Cleveland: The rise and fall of community organizing in Cleveland, Ohio, 1975 to 1985. (Belt Publishing, 2018). He is currently finishing work on a book on grass-roots environmental organizing.
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