News out of Boston about Black Lives Matter protesters blockading a highway has led to State Senator Leonidas Raptakis (D – Coventry, West Greenwich, East Greenwich) to decide he’ll introduce a bill that “will ensure that individuals who interfere with the safety of others on roadways and highways will face legal consequences.”
We should note that this legislation would be a total waste of time. Blocking the highway is already illegal, which is why the Boston protesters were arrested, as were Providence activists who blocked I-95 back in November.
What’s gotten people’s hackles up with this specific protest is that an ambulance in an emergency situation had to be rerouted. But this is not necessarily unique to this protest. There have been hundreds of protests in this country before, often on major roadways. The likelihood they have not caused an emergency vehicle to change its route is extremely low.
What is unique about the highway blockades are that they fall outside of the realm of “permitted protest” and thus into a long line of civil disobedience. What’s relatively fascinating about modern protest is that the state has taken a role in determining what is legitimate protest and what is not. Thus, if you want to protest the illegitimacy of the state, you must first go to the state to get a permit that says you can protest.
Blocking a highway cannot be a legitimate protest in the eyes of the state. It is mightily inconvenient, blocking a major artery of travel. Unlike a permitted protest, it cannot be planned for and forces a confrontation between protester, the state, and citizens who are now forced to deal with the reality of the protest.
And so you get concerns like Sen. Raptakis’ whose press release says “he absolutely respects and supports First Amendment rights to free speech and peaceful demonstration” But that “impeding drivers and potentially putting other people in danger, or even at the risk of death, is not the best way to protest.” That last statement can literally be applied to any protest (or event) that uses a street. Block parties, parades, etc. For logical consistency, Sen. Raptakis might consider mandating draconian laws for the use of streets by vehicular traffic only.
In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, many across in this country are expressing their support for freedom of speech. But when faced the consequences of free speech at this moment, Sen. Raptakis and those who think like him are expressing a knee-jerk reaction to speech that they find inconvenient. The proper response might be to take a long hard look at and reasoned debate about how we apply free speech laws, what the desirable balance of speech to law and order is, and what laws would be necessary to create that desirable balance. The courts will do this, but it helps if legislators do as well, rather than myopically passing laws in response to recent events.
Affecting all this, especially as MLK Day approaches, are the rose-tinted lenses we have when viewing protest movements of the past, especially the Civil Rights Movement (for an example, see this post on the otherwise excellent Mischiefs of Faction blog). We remember the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom as a pinnacle of successful protest, forgetting that 60% of Americans held an unfavorable view of the March. Even after the 1964 Civil Rights Act an astonishing 85% of Americans in 1966 thought that demonstrations hurt the cause of Civil Rights (up from just 57% in 1961).
Managing public protest is a tricky balancing act for public officials. What is the “best” protest is something different for protesters, for authorities, and for the general public. For protesters, it may be the protest which has the greatest impact on the average citizen. For authorities, it may be the protest which has the least impact on anyone. And for the general public, it may be the best protest is not a protest at all.
While debates about the effectiveness of highway blockades will continue to rage, the simple fact of the matter is that Sen. Raptakis has launched himself on a bad course, and he should correct it.