Is Protest Now Illegal in Practice?

I’ve recently subscribed to “Don’t Tase Me, Bro,” a blog about the erosion of civil liberties. It’s as much horrifying as informative. From the last few days:

Denver Protesters Ordered to Disperse, Then Trapped and Prevented from Dispersing, Then Pepper Sprayed

State Department Plan to Smear First Amendment Protected Protest as “Eco-Terrorism”

Denver Police Bulletin: Protest Sign Handles, Bicycles, Hand-Held Radios and Maps Mark Protestors as “Potentially Violent”

And my personal favorite:

Denver: Protesters Arrested for Refusing to Give Their Names to Police

From that last story:

Two protesters were arrested Sunday for not giving their names to police, raising questions about when that constitutes a crime.

“Isn’t this America?” asked Denver attorney John Holland. “Don’t you have the right to protest? Don’t you have the right to remain silent?”

Law-abiding protesters don’t have to give their names to police, he said.


I’ll answer my own question: I think that many police view the act of protesting as illegal in and of itself – and since they have the power to enforce that belief (legally or otherwise), protesting has become, in many places, de facto illegal. Certainly elites view protests as illegal.

Also conspicuous: The fact that the Democrats are just as complicit in this erosion as the Republicans. I don’t hear Dems at the convention (or even many liberal bloggers, to be honest) decrying the brutal and undemocratic tactics being used by police. Of course, since Dems are elites too, this is not terribly surprising. Sad, yes, but not surprising.

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8 Comments on “Is Protest Now Illegal in Practice?”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    What is sad, is when big protests do occur, they quickly become violent. As you read the news accounts, a lot of people are going specifically hoping riots and such occur. Looking at what some of the “protestors” are packing: Bottles, knives, rocks, bags of urine, etc. They clearly are not just protesting, they are planning to cause some damage. Therefore the police are forced to nip it quick, or not let it happen to begin with. I do agree the protestors were trapped today, but the police have to keep things under control, also. For heavens sake, the things were advertised on the net letting the people know to come prepared to “fight”. That is not the same as holding simple signs.

  2. Robin Says:

    First of all, is it possible that the weapons you describe (bottles, knives, etc.) were carried by only a few protesters, even possibly planted there to make the others look bad or to cause mayhem amongst them?

    Secondly, it is likely that most of the protesters have non-violent tendencies, considering their political views.

    And lastly, does it not seem that the police provoked the violence, as they so frequently do when citizens express dissent against abominations in our world?

  3. Dennis Says:

    Anon @ 2:27, I think you’re missing the causal order of things here. At the last several conventions (both Republican and Democratic), protesters did come with nothing more than simple signs – and were gassed and rounded up anyway. Those that are bringing the items you note – who, I suspect, are an incredibly tiny minority – are responding to the increased use of force by police officers.

    I don’t particularly agree with knives, rocks or bags of urine, but I can at least understand what caused people to think bringing them was a good idea. Hint: It’s dressed in black, visored and carries a riot shield and pepper spray. Left unchecked, it beats unarmed protesters.

    Anon, what does “the police have to keep things under control” mean to you? What are they afraid of?

    Robin – it is indeed possible that some of the weapons were planted. There is ample precedent for that.

  4. Joseph Orosco Says:

    Attorney Holland is incorrect. According to the 2004 case of Hiibel v. Sixth…, laws that compel a person to give their name to a police office are not unconstitutional. The Supreme Court ruled that giving your name is a reasonable intrusion (from the standpoint of the state) into a person’s privacy.

    I think your point is generally right, Dennis. If you look at the definition of terrorism used by the State Department and encoded in the USA Patriot Act, lots of nonviolent direct action protest could get counted as terrorism.

  5. Anonymous Says:

    I have no problem with protests, but if you think some people, and I won’t argue that it is the minority, don’t go looking for a fight, you are blind. And I don’t think you are blind. It escalates every year, and it is a shame. The sad part is it never puts the spotlight on the protesters’ message, just the few hoodlums throwing things. When you see pictures from the news showing large numbers dressed in black with face masks, I am sorry, the protest message is lost on the vast majority of people who the protesters are trying to influence.

  6. Dennis Says:

    Anon @ 12:23,

    I agree that a very small number of people attend protests with an eye to violence, but it’s a very small number. It would be incredibly unfair to condemn all protesters for the actions of a few. If that were the logic, we’d arrest whole neighborhoods when one person commits a crime, or disband all corporations when one breaks the law.

    The second part is that those people are disproportionately represented by the media, because masked rock throwers are a lot more sensational than moms with strollers and peace signs.

    Don’t blame protesters for how they are portrayed in the media. It’s completely unreasonable to expect a movement of hundreds or thousands of individuals, often with no hierarchical structure, to be able (or willing) to force others to protest in a specific way. That’s the messy nature of democratic politics.

    Why is incumbent on protesters to explain their message so perfectly, but not incumbent on the rest of us to listen to people who are going to such lengths to be heard? Where does (and should) the responsibility lie, and for what?

  7. Dennis Says:

    Joseph, thanks for the info. I hadn’t heard of that case.

  8. Anonymous Says:

    No argument on your last post, Dennis. I just think it is sad that the few who do go to fight get the lens of the media on them, so to speak, and therefore the very valid views of the protesters get lost. Peaceful protests don’t seem to get as much time in the news.

    Running with your argument, it doesn’t take many lawbreakers in one neighborhood to cause enough problems to deter others from moving to that neighborhood. And sometimes, the people from that neighborhood have to take the initiative to clean it up.


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