Are We Right To Protest?

On Friday, we’ll inaugurate the most unpopular president since Lincoln.  An estimated million people will be going to the Capital in order to celebrate, and half again as many will be going to protest.

Some would say that, since he’s already been elected, there’s really no point to protesting.  But the purpose of the protests is to influence policy, and to demonstrate the power of an organized population.

But in the face of recent reports of plans for violent protest, we have to ask ourselves:  How far should we be willing or able to go in our demonstrations?  Whether pro-Trump, anti-Trump, or pro-Issue — just what should we do or not do?

The Right To Protest

“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.”

This is one of our fundamental liberties, so much so that the Founders ensured that it be protected in great detail.  The right to protest, whether in writing or in speech or just by showing up, is essential to the function and process of freedom.

(People think of freedom as this kind of nebulous thing, something you either have or don’t have.  In reality, freedom, like democracy, is a process.  It’s a lifestyle.  If you don’t practice it constantly, you lose it.  And it’s like looking both ways before you cross the street — a very dangerous habit to lose.)

So that we have the right to protest is not a question.  No matter what it is, we have the right to assemble, and to speak, and to write, and to tell the Government what we want fixed.


The Extent Of The Right

The freedoms of speech, the press, assembly, and petition are separate, but they are parallel.  All these rights exist in order to prevent our government from tyrranizing — not from ill will, but by oversight, as it were.  If they know what we want, they should want to give it to us if they can.  This is a simple concept, but it’s essential, and if ever we lose it we lose all the value of our representative form of government.

As with all rights, these are restricted.  The right to speech, for example, stops where it interferes with another’s right to something equal or greater.  From this doctrine are derived the laws against slander and libel:  We can say bad things about someone as long as they’re true, because that doesn’t harm — it merely reveals.  But when we tell a lie in so doing, we create harm where none existed, and that is something our rights don’t cover.

The right to protest is parallel with the freedom of speech.  But you’ll notice the Founders chose explicitly to protect our right to assemble — peaceably.  Violent protest is not protected, nor should it be in any represented society.  Petition and assembly ought to be sufficient, at least in theory.  But more on that later.

So where does the boundary lie in a protest?  Obviously, violence is restricted; that’s direct harm to another, and your right to protest isn’t more valuable than theirs to safety.  However, to protest effectively, people must take notice, so for the right to have value it must necessarily extend some protections.  These end where the protest interferes with the fundamental rights of another individual — or, in an assembly, another group of individuals.

Let us take, for example, the right of people to travel.  It’s implied right here; one cannot assemble if one cannot get to the assembly.  Likewise, it exists in the Declaration; happiness is a pursuit, which means traveling.  This is a foundational right, a right on which other rights depend, including that of assembly, which makes the right to travel slightly more important.  So no protest should be permitted that prevents people from traveling.  On the other hand, if you merely delay someone, that’s not prevention; they can choose another route than the bridge you’re blocking.

But you’ve got to be careful that people don’t get trapped on the bridge, because that actually stops them, and prevents them from moving entirely.  Better would to block the road right at the last on-ramp, or to block all but one travel lane.

Lest you think I’m making this up, I’m going through the same process judges use to interpret relative rights and the law — judicial review, which is a doctrine fundamental to our form of government.  All this has merely been a very simple example.

The bottom line here is, our rights are predicated on our national ethic, and that has a formula and a process — just like freedom, and democracy.  There’s a structure, and if you’re going to be a citizen active in politics, you owe it to yourself and your cause to fully understand that structure.

A Note On Violent Protest

When the American Revolution began, it did so as a reaction to oppression, often violent in nature.  Freedoms had been restricted, people hanged without trial, towns raided and burned, guns seized (that last in a place where attacks from the natives were not unknown, mind.)  As a result, independence was declared — very politely, very logically, in a well-reasoned philosophical treatise no less.

But politeness notwithstanding, everyone knew there would be a war.  Independence was not a course embarked upon lightly; the options were carefully weighed, and it was determined that even the horrors of war would be preferable to continual oppression and violence.

So all this is not to say that violence has no place in protest against oppression.  It does; its place is the very last resort once the system in place has utterly failed.  Some would argue that, in the case of the inner cities and the drug subculture, we’ve reached that point — and the relative truth of that argument is not for me to decide, not here and now.  That one’s up to you.

Violent protest may have a place, but it also has a price: a price in the criminal justice system, one commensurate with its value.  If you dance, you have to expect to pay the piper.  For more on that subject, I’d recommend reading Thoreau’s “On The Duty Of Civil Disobedience” — and, perhaps, the Declaration of Independence.

And, until you have read them and understood them, here’s some very valuable advice:  Don’t be violent in your protests.  Violence should never be entered into without full and complete understanding of the consequences — for you, for the other guy, and for your cause.

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