Yesterday was the 30th anniversary of the Chinese government’s crackdown on the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy demonstrators. Many Americans used the occasion to criticize the Chinese government for being intolerant of public protests, and to feel good that such authoritarian behavior could never be tolerated in the U.S., where the rights to freedom of assembly and speech are enshrined in the Constitution.
After all, America was born in protest – with the Boston Tea Party. Nonviolent civil disobedience was the cornerstone of the abolition, suffrage, labor, and Civil Rights movements.
But over the last two years, a growing number of Republican states have been passing laws to outlaw and criminalize public protests, often threatening long prison sentences for activists.
A recent example was in Texas, where state legislators last week passed a law making it a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison for protesters to try to interrupt the construction of oil and gas pipelines or any other so-called “critical infrastructure” projects.
“There is no question that this is an intimidation tactic,” said Adrian Shelley, Director of the Texas office of Public Citizen. “Protesters now understand quite clearly that they risk felonies if they dare to protest the actions of the petrochemical industry in Texas. It will have a chilling effect on free speech and on the sorts of civil disobedience that in some cases are the only avenue for real change.”
Now, you might think: Well, that’s just Texas. But it’s not just Texas. In fact, lawmakers in eight states have passed similar anti-protest bills over the last two years – in Missouri, Indiana, Louisiana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Tennessee.
And, according to the International Center for Not for Profit Law, which tracks the issue, four additional states are currently considering making it a felony to organize protests against oil and gas pipelines and other infrastructure projects: Idaho, Kentucky, Minnesota, and Ohio.
“We’re being charitable when we call these bills anti-Democratic,” said Josh Axelrod with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “They are anti-freedom bills.”
Some of these bills are being pushed by the oil and gas industry as a backlash against the Dakota Access pipeline protests in 2016, which received national media attention. Protests in Western Maryland over a gas pipeline proposed beneath the Potomac River contributed to the denial of a permit for project in January.
The Trump Administration nationalized the issue on Monday. The Department of Transportation proposed legislation that would make it a felony, punishable by up to 20 years in prison, to protest, impede, and delay oil and gas pipeline construction.
Organizations that even discuss pipeline protests could be held criminally liable, although the language is vague, according to Elly Page an attorney with the International Center for Not for Profit Law.
“I think that’s where you get into trouble – where you have vagueness about what kind of conduct is permissible and legal, combined with extreme, extreme penalties,” Page said. “It’s going to chill individuals’ desire to be involved in protest activity.”
Some of the efforts to clamp down on protests go beyond just pipelines and environmental issues. During widespread public teacher strikes in West Virginia last year, for example, lawmakers in that state passed a law that relieves police of any liability for killing or wounding protesters while breaking up unlawful assemblies.
The bigger picture is that America is – in plain sight, on TV and Twitter every day – sliding toward the kind of authoritarianism that our democracy was born in rebellion against. We should think about that when we remember Tiananmen Square.