Millions demonstrate against Trump as states plan restrictive protest laws
One day after the inauguration of Donald Trump as the USA's 45th president, an estimated three million people participated in the Women’s March on Washington and other peaceful marches in nearly 500 cities across the country. In Washington, DC, almost a half million people gathered to hear speeches covering a wide range of issues including police brutality, mass incarceration, indigenous people's land rights and reproductive healthcare. Feminist activist Gloria Steinem told the crowd in Washington:
“This is an outpouring of energy, and true democracy like I have never seen in my very long life.”
Demonstrations continued in the days following the inauguration, with hundreds gathering in front of the White House each evening to protest against various executive orders signed by President Trump during his first days in office, including one approving construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline on 24th January. When Trump signed an order banning refugees and citizens of seven Muslim majority countries from entering the country, thousands again protested at airports across the USA and around the world.
Amidst the public displays of opposition to the new president's administration, lawmakers in at least ten states are considering legislation that would criminalise or discourage peaceful protest. The number of states considering such laws has continued to grow following the US election. Media reports have confirmed that lawmakers in the following states are considering curbs on protest rights: Colorado, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, North Dakota, Virginia and Washington State.
The bill in North Dakota would remove motorist's liability for “negligently caus[ing] injury or death to an individual obstructing vehicular traffic on a public road, street, or highway.” Peaceful protests which seek to disrupt traffic flow by blocking highways have become a more common occurance in recent months across the USA. One local lawmaker sought to justify the new rules by saying that some accidents might occur if motorists “punched the accelerator rather than the brakes.” North Dakota - the state in which sustained protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline have taken place in recent months - also wants to criminalise the wearing of masks during a protest, preventing the use of a mask or hood that covers part or all of the face when in a public area, such as a road or highway. It would also ban use of coverings for a person’s face while at a demonstration or rally on private property without written permission. The measure sets a maximum penalty of one year’s imprisonment.
The proposal in Indiana would instruct police to use “any means necessary” to clear protesters off of a road. In Virginia, a proposed law would increase penalties for people who engage in an “unlawful assembly” after “having been lawfully warned to disperse.” Minnesota lawmakers have proposed legislation that would give cities the authority to charge protesters for police services if the demonstrators are convicted of illegal assembly or public nuisance. The measure would also give cities the option of suing convicted protesters to recoup expenses from policing the demonstration.
Six journalists covering protests on inauguration day, some of which turned violent, were arrested in Washington, DC and charged with felony rioting, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. At the time of arrest, no specific allegations were made supporting the charges. Some of the journalists had their cell phones and cameras taken as evidence. Commenting on the arrests, Carlos Lauría from the Committee to Protect Journalists said:
“These charges are clearly inappropriate, and we are concerned that they could send a chilling message to journalists covering future protests.”
In a separate development, Maryland lawmakers plan to introduce a bill that would ban companies which support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel from doing business with the state.
A bill introduced by Senator Ted Cruz on 10th January calls on the State Department to determine whether the Muslim Brotherhood is a foreign terrorist organisation. If the group becomes designated, the label could open the door to the prosecution or harassing of American Muslim civil society groups, and give the government greater leeway to invade individual privacy. In a press release, Cruz said that the brotherhood is a threat to America and that formally designating them a terror group would “enable the U.S. to take action that could stifle the funding they receive.” The bill was introduced less than three weeks before President Trump signed an executive order banning immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the USA.