The move to criminalize protests is a threat to democracy

At the recent People’s Hearing on Fair Redistricting held at the legislature, my mother had to really take into consideration where she sat.

I don’t mean she was overly concerned about the direct-viewing angle, or closeness to the speaker queue. She is one of the 30-some citizens who is banned from the NC Legislative Building – seemingly indefinitely – by Wake County Magistrate Jeffrey Godwin as part of their conditional release from detainment.

Indeed, if my mother was found in the General Assembly, she would face immediate arrest. NCGA Police Chief Martin Brock has all too quickly signaled his eagerness to comply with this order, suggesting that if “someone has been arrested two or three times” it would be “reasonable” to expect them to be arrested again. Such a sentiment runs counter to the foundational principle of due process, where citizens are innocent until proven guilty, but it is a kind of sentiment that has spread across this nation over the last year or so.

Laws criminalizing protest have been presented and even passed in the wake of the Dakota Access Pipeline demonstrations and the voicing of widespread discontent at many legislator town halls, with constituents holding their elected officeholders accountable for their policies face-to-face. (Notably, some members of Congress, including North Carolina’s own Sen. Richard Burr, refuse to hold town halls with the threat of such democratic confrontation clearly in mind.)

Virginia, North Dakota, Colorado, Minnesota and Arizona are among the states that have sought to enact or increase penalties for anything from covering one’s face (as is done not to incur backlash from employers unsympathetic to one’s political cause, or simply to protect against tear gas) to blocking highways, a tactic that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. employed to great effect.

The First Amendment is the cornerstone of the democracy we love to celebrate. Those freedoms are what enables all the rest to function – and this should remind us that that which is simply codified is by no means guaranteed without a continual struggle for preservation.

Beñat Quartararo is a student at UNC-Asheville and a summer 2017 intern with Common Cause NC.

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