Protests over Congress' inaction on immigration, racial justice and gun control

Over the last several months, CIVICUS Monitor research partner - Charity and Security Network - has documented a number of protests taking place across the country on various issues from immigration to labour rights. Examples of such protests and the reasons behind the protests are detailed in the sections below. 

Peaceful Assembly

Challenging government policies

On the one-year anniversary of President Donald Trump's inauguration, thousands of people participated in rallies and marches across the U.S. to denounce his administration’s policies. In Washington DC, protesters filled the National Mall to mark the one-year anniversary of the Women's March. In Knoxville, Tennessee, many people gathered downtown, holding signs that read “#RESIST”. More than a thousand people marched in downtown Richmond, Virginia that same day, and there were nearly twice that number in Austin,Texas. Smaller counter protests in support of the President were also held in several cities.

Hundreds of people marched in the streets of Minneapolis before the Super Bowl football competition started. It was reported that about 200 people came to one knee in front of U.S. Bank Stadium entrances. A coalition of 30 groups, including the Anti-War Committee, Black Lives Matter, Women against Military Madness and local unions, organised the rally. Elsewhere in the city, about 50 people blocked or chained themselves to the city’s light rail transit line, temporarily halting trains. Other rallies and protests took place throughout the city.

On 16th February 2018, more than 100 protesters stood outside the National Rifle Association headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia, demanding action on gun control in the wake of a school shooting in Florida. Among the protesters were friends of some of the 17 students and teachers who were killed in Parkland, Florida. 

Immigration-related issues

On 17th January, more than 80 Jewish clergy and activists were arrested on Capitol Hill for staging a sit in to protest the president’s plan to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Capitol Police said the protesters were charged with “crowding, obstructing, or incommoding” in a public building. The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Bend the Arc Jewish Action and the Anti-Defamation League were among the groups present during the protest.

On 22nd January, about 20 people temporarily blocked a vehicle entrance to Disneyland in Anaheim, California, in support of DACA. Police and security officers moved the protesters, who were chanting "What do we want? Clean Dream Act!", from the streets to the sidewalk without incident.

On 8th February, attorneys with the Legal Aid Society staged a protest outside of the Bronx Criminal Court over the detention of an undocumented immigrant Aboubacar Dembele who came to the U.S. when he was three years old and is married to a U.S. citizen. Dembele was at the courthouse to appear on a misdemeanor assault charge. According to media reports, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents were waiting for him at the courthouse. Dozens of New York City public defenders walked out of court in protest over Dembele’s arrest, with many saying ICE cannot use the courthouse as a place to conduct their searches.

18 people were arrested, including two New York City Council members, during a 11th January rally in Manhattan over the detention and proposed deportation of a prominent immigration rights activist Ravi Ragbir. Ragbir was at the Javits Federal Building for a routine appointment when he was detained by ICE officials. After word of his detention spread on social media, about 300 people began protesting outside of the building. Council members Jumaane Williams and Ydanis Rodriguez were among the arrested, and video showed police officers pushing Williams face down on a parked car.

On 23rd January, about 75 people rallied outside Senator Chuck Schumer's Brooklyn home to denounce the deal to end the federal government shutdown without protections for young immigrants. People held signs that said "Clean Dream Act Now" and "No! Not One More Deportation!" Some chanted "If Chuck won't let us dream, we won't let him sleep".

Hundreds of Haitian-Americans rallied in New York City and in Florida to denounce President Trump's disparaging remarks about Haiti and African countries. In New York, hundreds of people, including Mayor Bill deBlasio, gathered in Times Square and near Trump Tower to march and wave Haitian flags. In West Palm Beach, dozens of people protested the near Trump's Florida resort, chanting "What do we want? An apology!"

Environmental-related issues

On 1st February, about 450 people converged near the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia to protest President Trump’s arrival at the 2018 Republican Congressional Retreat. With the resort’s entrance blocked by police, the protesters marched nearby in the town’s main street holding signs and chanting. Environmental issues, healthcare and immigration policies were among the top issues cited by the protesters.

On 6th February, hundreds of people held a rally in Salem, Oregon to protest the White House’s proposal to open the West Coast to offshore oil drilling. They voiced concerns about oil spills and the potential impacts on marine life.

On 12th January, three people were arrested for locking themselves to the entrance of a Wells Fargo bank in Duluth, Minnesota, in protest of the bank’s financial contributions to oil companies. About three dozen protesters had gathered outside of the bank to demonstrate before three men chained themselves to doors and a gate at the entrance to the bank. Firefighters eventually freed the men and they face charges of trespassing, disorderly conduct and obstructing the legal process.

Nationalist group protest

On 6th January, about a dozen people holding confederate flags rallied near a local park in Memphis, Tennessee, where civil war statues and other commemorative markers had been removed in December 2017. A large police presence prevented anyone from entering the park, but the police created a “protest area” for members of the Shield Wall - a white nationalist group, many of whom were sporting shields, helmets and bulletproof vests. People were permitted to enter the cordoned area if they removed the vests and surrendered the shields to police. Protesters held signs that said, “Diversity = White Genocide”. A small counter protest of about ten people were also present. On the same day, about 50 vehicles participated a “rolling rally” on Interstate 240 near Memphis, organised by Confederate 901, to protest the removal of confederate monuments.

Violent protests at universities 

On 2nd February, a protest turned violent at Colorado State University during a conservative speaker’s event. According to reports, protests outside the venue where conservative activist Charlie Kirk of Turning Point USA was speaking were largely peaceful. Turning Point’s website states that the group is committed to fiscal responsibility, free markets and limited government. However, near the end of the event, people armed with bats, riot shields, gas masks, and large flashlights, and chanting pro-Nazi slogans clashed with the protesters. Campus police equipped in riot gear quickly moved in to separate the two sides and disperse the crowd, but not before some violence took place.

On 10th February, five people were arrested when counter protesters clashed with participants of a free speech rally at the University of Washington, Seattle. Hosted by the school’s College Republicans, the rally took place in the campus's Red Square with speeches and chants in support of President Trump and his policies. 

Labour rights related issues

On 12th January, about 100 demonstrators braved frigid temperatures to bang drums and carry signs outside the home of Iowa Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix, criticising his settlement in a sexual harassment suit and for harming workers' rights. During the last legislative session, Dix and his fellow Republicans passed measures to weaken collective bargaining rights for public unions and slowed efforts to raise minimum wages in several counties.

At University of California - Berkeley on 1st February, the arrest of an employee during a demonstration drew complaints from students and workers who say police used excessive force. UC Berkeley cook David Cole and about 100 members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the school’s largest union, were demonstrating in the street for higher wages. A video shows three UC police officers wrestling Cole to the ground, after somebody allegedly threw something at a nearby car. Cole sustained injuries to his head and had to have stitches in his eyes and nose.

Citing lost wages and work, strip club employees in New Orleans protested police raids and the closure of eight strip clubs in the city. The protesters held signs and chanted, “My body is not illegal" and "Strippers' rights are human rights". Some of the women held a news conference on 31st January to publicise how they were mistreated by police who raided the clubs on allegations of illegal activities taking place therein. 

To mark the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Memphis sanitation worker strike, fast food workers, janitors and airport and hospital workers in cities across the U.S. walked off their jobs to petition for a $15 minimum wage and the right to join a union. In Detroit, workers rallied at Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park, while in Memphis, workers marched downtown. Similar demonstrations were held in Cleveland, Chicago, Houston, Milwaukee and Des Moines.

Prisoners' strike

Inmates across the state of Florida announced they would be participating in a strike on 15th January to draw attention to the inhumane conditions and treatment they endure on a daily basis. It is difficult to determine the extent of the protest, and media reports have been mixed as to whether the strike is happening or was suppressed by prison officials. According to the Washington Post, “Strike organisers in at least 15 prisons were placed in isolation and denied their property, including writing instruments, to forestall the strike and limit their ability to communicate”.

On 8th January, about 40 people protested outside the Pentagon to voice their frustration with the Department of Defense's inaction on the issue of sexual assault and harassment in the military. Organised by the Service Women's Action Network under the hashtag #MeTooMilitary, the protesters wanted to bring attention to how widespread and prevalent of an issue it is, as one speaker at the protest stated, “We know that it’s a big problem. We know that 6,300 reports of sexual assault were made in 2016”.

In protest of the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) decision to overturn Net Neutrality rules, a bicyclist staged a one man protest outside of the FCC’s office on 29th January. Protester Rob Bliss set up traffic cones to block all but one lane for cars, then rode his bike slowly in the lane. The protest was meant to mimic what critics say will be the effect of the net neutrality repeal.

Worrying anti-protest laws

The wave of anti-protest legislation sweeping state legislatures across the country shows no sign of slowing. The number of anti-protest bills has reached 58 in 31 states, with nine bills already introduced (or-reintroduced) in 2018. The initial bills mostly focused on restricting how people assembled or protested in public spaces. The latest round of bills targets free speech on college campuses. Versions of the Campus Free Speech Bill, which would increase penalties for individuals and student groups who openly protest events, have already been passed and enacted in North Carolina, and are under consideration in Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Expression

On 5th February 2018, legislation that would make it a federal crime to assault a journalist was introduced by member of Congress  Eric Swalwell. The Journalist Protection Act, HR 4935 would make it illegal to injure a journalist with “knowledge or reason to know” that the person is a journalist and with the “intention of intimidating or impeding news gathering,” or while the “journalist is taking part in news gathering”.

On 4th January, a federal district court in Idaho struck down key provisions of the state’s ag-gag statute as unconstitutional. Seen as a victory for journalists and whistleblowers, the court determined that a lower court’s ruling criminalising the recording “of an agricultural production facility’s operations” as a violation of the First Amendment. Before the ruling, the ag-gag law made it illegal to secretly film “agricultural production,” and violators faced up to a 5,000 USD fine and a year in prison. The Idaho Legislature passed the law in 2014, after activists with Mercy for Animals went undercover to expose animal abuse at Bettencourt Dairies’ Dry Creek Dairy in Hansen, Idaho.

After a jury acquitted the first six defendants in December 2017, the U.S. Attorney's office announced on 18th January that it would drop charges against 129 people accused of rioting on President Trump's inauguration day for lack of evidence. Those arrested included protesters, journalists, medics, legal observers and bystanders. About 59 people still face charges, including journalist Aaron Cantú, who was arrested while covering the protest. In a statement, the government said it would “focus its efforts on this smaller, core group that we believe is most responsible for the destruction and violence that took place on Inauguration Day". As reported previously on the Monitor, on 20th January 2017, police arrested more than 230 people in Washington DC who were attending the Inauguration Day protests.

On 31st January, a federal judge temporarily blocked a Kansas law that bars state contractors from participating in boycotts against Israel, saying that the state law violates their free speech rights. The judge stated that it is “highly likely” that the Kansas law is unconstitutional and therefore granted a request from the American Civil Liberties Union to block enforcement of the Kansas law while the case moves forward. In his ruling, the judge wrote: "The Supreme Court has held that the First Amendment protects the right to participate in a boycott like the one punished by the Kansas law".

On 8th February, Massachusetts lawmakers halted a bill that would have classified protests like the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign for Palestinian rights as “discrimination”. The bill was sent to be examined further, meaning that it will not be voted on in this legislative session.

Nebraska lawmakers are debating legislation that would require colleges in Nebraska to adopt policies guaranteeing free speech on their campuses. The bill - LB718 - would also require the creation of a committee to produce annual reports for the public about barriers to free speech and attempts to disrupt free speech.

On 6th February, a New York City reporter and cameraman were attacked by a man with a baseball bat as they were trying to interview him. Howard Thompson and his photographer John Frasse were attacked by Jose Lebron-Pimentel who police say hit Thompson in his leg with his bat, injuring him. Lebron-Pimentel was charged with assault.

President Trump’s verbal assault on the media has shown no signs of abating. Days after the publication of the book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff, on 10th January Trump threatened to change libel laws to make it easier to sue news organisations and publishers. “We are going to take a strong look at our country’s libel laws so that when somebody says something that is false and defamatory about someone, that person will have meaningful recourse in our courts,” Trump stated in a social media post. The day before, one of the president’s attorneys filed a defamation suit against BuzzFeed for publishing the controversial Russia dossier. On 17th January, the president released his “Fake News Awards,” an anti-media project targeting journalists and media outlets for their reporting. More recently at a White House press briefing, the president initially ignored a question about immigration from CNN’s chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta before pointing at him and saying, “out”.