Will we protect our right to protest?

By Gary Pearce Guest columnist

In an America bitterly divided over protests and politics, the least-familiar part of our Constitution’s First Amendment may be the most endangered: the right to peacefully protest.

That right is guaranteed in the last 18 words of the amendment, which say Congress shall make no law abridging “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” The 14th Amendment makes that apply to states too.

Most all Americans affirm and actively exercise the First Amendment’s right of free speech. Many Americans swear by the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms. But “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances”? We’re less certain about that one.

Pew Research Center this month reported a decline in how many Americans say “it is very important for the country that people are free to peacefully protest” – from 74% two years ago to 68% now.

Pew said the decline has come entirely among Republicans:

“Only about half of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (53%) say it is very important for the country that people are free to peacefully protest, while 33% say this is somewhat important; 13% say it is not too or not at all important. Two years ago, 64% of Republicans said that it was very important that people are free to protest peacefully.”

Ponder that for a moment. Barely a majority of those Americans say it’s very important to protect the right to protest and petition the government for change.

The picture is very different among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, Pew found: 82% said the freedom to peacefully protest is very important. That’s the same as two years ago. But only 43% of them believe the country does a good job of protecting that freedom, down dramatically from 68% two years ago. Among Republicans, 79% said the country does a good job protecting the right.

The Pew study interviewed 11,000 adults July 27-Aug. 2.

The results no doubt reflect attitudes about protests against police brutality toward Blacks.

Democrats see peaceful, justified protests that sometimes are marred by violence and vandalism, whether caused by protesters or right-wing vigilantes. Sometimes the problem is overzealous and even hostile police.

Republicans see lawlessness and disorder. They see it constantly on Fox News. They hear President Trump’s dire warnings about allegedly rampant rioting in “Democrat cities.”

Throughout history, Americans have had an uneasy attitude toward protests, even though our country was born out of protest.

Labor strikes were brutally broken. Suffragettes were arrested. In 1932, when veterans marched on Washington demanding bonus legislation, President Herbert Hoover sent General Douglas McArthur and the Army to expel the marchers and burn their camps.

In the 1960s, protests erupted over civil rights for Blacks and the Vietnam War. Our feelings about those protests then, pro and con, still shape our politics today.

Today’s climate can lead to overreaction and repression. One free-speech group said 82 bills have been considered or adopted by 32 states to criminalize assembly and speech. Some were motivated by environmental protests as well as Black Lives Matter protests.

Critics say such bills have a chilling effect on protests and aren’t needed; there already are laws against violence and vandalism.

Conservatives who don’t value the right to protest should think twice. What about the Tea Party protests in 2010? Or gun-rights protests? Or this year’s “Reopen NC” protests?

Already, we’ve let political differences divide us. Will we let them threaten our most basic rights?

Gary Pearce blogs at www.NewDayforNC.com.