Every American citizen has the right to protest as guaranteed by the Constitution, the right to assemble; and in the Bill of Rights which includes freedom of speech. Both of these – right to assemble and freedom of speech – are hallmarks of our Constitutional Democracy and enshrined to protect Americans wanting to express dissent on any subject or issue.
Historically, street protest has been one of the most effective tools in bringing about social justice, civil rights, or even pressuring our government to end wars. Protests run the gamut from being massive with over a million plus demonstrators as the historic Women’s Rights protests in D.C.; to being pivotal to shaping history as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous Selma Alabama march. Almost on a daily basis our nation’s Capital is host to protestors calling for action to climate change, stopping police brutality in the Black Lives Matter movement, increasing funding for education, protecting Medicare, and a motley of other issues.
Nationwide Protest to end COVID-19 Stay-at-home orders
But the manner in which protests are carried out matters.
The recent waves of protests in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, North Carolina, Minnesota, Virginia, Wisconsin, Utah, Maryland, Arizona, Montana, Pennsylvania, Texas and other parts of the country was a shameful, threatening display of aggression.
Anti-lockdown protestors, wanting the government to reopen the economy and lift stay-at-home orders, resorted to intimidating, possibly illegal actions. They stormed government buildings. Many of them carried deadly automatic weapons, and at times blocked entrances to hospitals causing delays for first responders to get to work where each second could have a life or death consequence.
All that firepower that protestors flaunted could have easily ended in bystanders or law enforcement being killed.
In some states, armed protestors forced their way in government buildings where weapons of any kind are prohibited, or even objects like umbrellas for fear of them being used as weapons. But rules were ignored. No government building security in their right mind would dare to stop bands of protestors – more like militia – from entering when they’re carrying enough ammo to shoot down a mini-army.
This isn’t the first time guns (but not of this caliber) have been used in protests. In the 1960s, the Black Panthers brandished rifles while protesting violence against Black communities. They were widely condemned for carrying rifles.
But in this latest anti-lockdown protest, mums was the word. Double standard? Are we now expected to accept that a new norm for protest could include armed-militia. President Donald Trump made no mention of the manner of which protests were conducted – goons with guns and blocking hospitals – except to offer words of understanding, largely because most of these protestors were pro-Trump groups.
During Trump’s daily coronavirus briefing, he defended anti-lockdown protestors in states.
“If people feel that way, you’re allowed to protest. Some governors have gone too far, some of the things that happened are maybe not so appropriate.”
It is reasonable that some sectors of society would want to reopen business – this is debatable as to timing, but it is a legitimate concern, even justifiable to mount an organized protest.
But deadly, militia-type weapons should not be acceptable for such gatherings. And certainly blocking entrances to hospitals and causing traffic in areas where hospitals are, especially during this time, shouldn’t be allowed.
When looking at which groups participated in the protest – right-wing armed militia groups, known White Supremacist groups like the Proud Boys, gun-rights groups, anti-vaccination radicals, religious fundamentalists (who are claiming that they’re immune to catching the virus) – it’s also doubtful that simply reopening business as usual was their primary purpose. For at least armed militia groups, it was more like a show of force, fringe elements coming out of the shadows and brazenly armed to poke at law enforcement and government. The message they were sending – “We’re here. We’re armed. What are you going to do about?”
Why this protest is cause for alarm
It’s hard not to think about regions in the Middle East where armed militia, armed citizens, came to power and destabilized their legitimate governments. In a time of vulnerability and uncertainty in the U.S. over COVID-19, the very thought of massive, coordinated, armed citizens roaming the streets is cause for alarm.
If violence had erupted, what would be the course of action? Martial law? It’s the last thing our country would need, particularly with an authoritarian leader in the White House.
Organizers of this protest set an ugly precedent. Not to mention that they’ve put many lives at risk for contracting COVID-19, not just protestors, but entire communities.
For example in Kentucky where protests were held, Gov. Andy Beshear reported that there were 293 new positive coronavirus cases in that state, the biggest daily increase just two days after the protests. It’s possible that the spike is related to exposure during the protests as many large gatherings have been found to spread the virus.
Protests are meant to be uncomfortable in nature. Oftentimes organizers resort to shocking displays to get their point across. This is all fair game. But endangering lives and resorting to goonish tactics, which is what occurred in these recent protests, only diminished the organizers and participants’ message (which is arguably, a legitimate one). It also jeopardized national stability at a time when it’s so critical to have.