Over the past few decades, we’ve seen an alarming, sustained attack on and rollback of the First Amendment–guaranteed right to assemble and protest.
Peaceful anti-war protests have repeatedly featured hundreds of arrests and even charges laid against demonstrators, trends amped up in 1999 during the “Battle of Seattle,” where police responded to the anti-globalization movement by setting up a “no-protest zone” and attacking activists with rubber bullets, concussion grenades, and chemical weapons. Years later, in the post-9/11 world, the two parties established “free speech zones” — designated areas where people were “allowed” by authorities to stage easily avoidable protests — and mass arrests as a permanent part of the political landscape.
These tactics have been used by law enforcement authorities with ever-increasing frequency and ardor. We saw it in 2011, when police raided and dismantled the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Zuccotti Park, blocking, hurting, and arresting bystanders, and even journalists, as they did so, with the mayor charging that the occupation of a public space was improper and that “health and safety conditions became intolerable.” And we saw it in 2016, as police and the National Guard attacked indigenous protesters for daring to defend their own land, using sound and water cannons, automatic rifles, and more to disperse and maim protesters and members of the press, slapping them indiscriminately with felony charges.
The explosion of activism under Donald Trump has only led to stronger pushback from authorities. Trump’s inauguration was met with massive protests that saw police arrest 234 people, including legal observers, medics, reporters, and other bystanders, and hit them with felony charges that could have led to decades in prison. Prosecutors targeted even people who weren’t physically at the protest, and the judge argued that simply livestreaming a protest was tantamount to aiding and abetting a riot. This was, of course, after the now customary round of grenades, tear gas, and pepper spray that police needlessly rained down on protesters during the event.
Lawmakers have since turned to outright criminalization of protest. In 2018, Republicans introduced legislation that would put activists in prison for fifteen years if they wore masks while being accused of violence or threatening behavior by police. Since 2017, forty states have considered 143 different bills that threaten anyone blocking or occupying public roads, sidewalks, and state property with potential felony charges, with twenty-five such bills passing into law and twelve currently in the process. At least eighteen states have proposed bills stepping up punishments against activists disrupting the construction and operation of oil pipelines, in response to growing civil disobedience against fossil fuel infrastructure. Some have gone further, with Republicans around the country pushing legislation that effectively makes it legal for people to mow down protesters with their cars.
This rising tide of anti-protest repression seemed to culminate in 2020, when the massive, nationwide demonstrations following the police murder of George Floyd were met with the same brazen police brutality they were protesting. Police rammed their cars into protesters; attacked and hospitalized the peaceful and even the elderly; deployed military weapons, equipment, and tactics; spied on protesters; and, at one point, even began kidnapping those they deemed suspicious off the streets. This happened in Portland, Oregon, for months a flashpoint of the movement, where demonstrators wearing protective gear and wielding leaf blowers were met with federal authorities using the kind of counterinsurgency tactics usually reserved for foreign countries invaded by the US government.
The scenes that came out of the US Capitol yesterday would have been extraordinary even without all this. But it was impossible to watch the chaos that unfolded in Washington and not think about the litany of attacks on largely left-leaning protesters that have taken place over not just the last year, but the last several decades.
But for anyone who had been on the receiving end of a police baton over the past year, the contrast was stark. The rows of militarized police that were ready and waiting for racial justice protesters last summer seemed strangely absent from yesterday’s event, their meager forces easily overwhelmed. The police that once gratuitously shoved an elderly protester to the ground and gave him a brain injury now carefully escorted a protester by the hand down the Capitol steps. Police let protesters take selfies with them, punch them, and at one point opened a gate to let them through to the Capitol, all while dutifully continuing to arrest journalists.
“We’ve just got to let them do their thing now,” one police officer told the press as he pleaded with protesters to leave the Capitol, a sight difficult to reconcile with decades’ worth of gratuitous police violence, perhaps best embodied by the image of a University of California-Davis policeman casually pepper-spraying Occupy activists seated cross-legged on the ground in 2011.
This should, of course, not be a race to the bottom. In a world where police didn’t form a core Trump constituency, the kind of relative restraint shown by officers yesterday might have been extended to all protesters, even those who wish to cut police budgets instead of a mere trifle like overturning a democratic election. And we should certainly be careful not to give further ammunition to the long right-wing project of gradually eroding the right to protest and criminalizing dissent. There is, after all, a proud history of occupying government buildings to build pressure for just causes, from Black Panthers marching into the California Capitol, to anti-Vietnam protesters blocking a hallway outside the Senate chamber, to workers occupying Wisconsin’s state Capitol.
But yesterday’s events signal something alarming. Law enforcement’s general preference for, and sympathy with, the far right has been well documented, and the police’s starkly different treatment of Trump supporters charging into the heart of US democracy to annul an election, when contrasted with last year’s racial justice demonstrations, is a reminder that law enforcement’s priorities are vastly out of step with most ordinary people.
What it suggests is that even as the right to protest takes hit after hit from law enforcement and the Right, this erosion only counts for some groups and not for others. The political polarization of US society is seeping beyond the realm of culture and extending to how laws are being applied by the state. And with a tumultuous decade of protest and pressure ahead, that should make us all very worried.