Unless you’ve been conducting a social media fast the last few days, you know about the latest controversy Trump has set off with his comments and tweets about the NFL “take a knee” protests. Trump’s statements have engulfed much of the sports world and a good part of the country in yet another culture war. Lucky for Trump, this is the kind of war he loves to enlist in. But for the rest of us, it’s just another exhausting round in the never-ending drama that is the Trump presidency.
So this post is not going to be a continuation of that debate – though I do of course have thoughts about the President’s comments and the actions at which they were directed (and you can probably guess what those thoughts are). But those issues have already been debated for days without any resolution, and you guys know that I try to use this blog to talk about things that aren’t getting as much coverage in the media. Unfortunately, in all the back & forth over the President’s comments, and even in the (sometimes surprising) pushback that came from all around the NFL, the real core issue seems to have gotten lost.
Like so many things these days, it turned into a saga about Trump – are you with him or against him (or at least: are you with his comments or against them)? As a result, the original reason that Colin Kaepernick chose to kneel – to bring attention to state violence against people of color (namely police brutality) and to systemic racism in general – has mostly been pushed aside.
I really want to make note of that, because we now have all this drama swirling – and players and teams possibly paying the price for their activism – and we shouldn’t lose sight of the very serious reason why this all started. That is one of the big pictures here. But another big picture issue, one I feel better equipped to address, is the issue of our government quashing dissenting voices. There has been some discussion of that the last few days, as the controversy very clearly began with Trump’s Friday night call for players who kneel during the anthem to be fired.
But I don’t think we’ve really focused enough on just how radical it is for the President of the United States to call for a citizen to be fired because that President doesn’t like something that citizen has said or done. And while I know there are many who disagree with the particular form of protest at issue here, I hope that even those who disapprove of the protests can take a step back and see why it’s so disturbing for the President – this or any President – to encourage punishment of citizens he disagrees with.
And this was not an isolated incident. Remember, it was just a couple weeks ago that Trump’s press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders very strongly suggested that ESPN host Jemele Hill should be fired because she had sent out tweets calling Trump a white supremacist. And just in case the message wasn’t clear the first time, Sanders doubled down on it days later, and Trump himself lashed out at ESPN over the issue in a tweet.
Now, you can think Hill’s tweets were inappropriate, and you may even think she did deserve to be fired for writing them. But for the White House to call for a private business to fire an employee because of something she said is another thing entirely. There is no more powerful voice, no louder megaphone in the country (perhaps the world) than the President and those who speak for him in the White House. For these kind of calls to come from the White House is incredibly chilling and intimidating, and it seems quite clear that the intent is to discourage speech or actions that are critical of the President or with which the President disagrees.
And the punishment/intimidation from the Trump administration comes in other forms as well. You may remember that in August I told you about a case in which Trump’s DOJ (led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions) demanded identifying information from a website on which an inauguration day protest against Trump had been organized. That would have included names, addresses and other identifying information for every single person who had visited the site.
The underlying case for which the DOJ was gathering the information only involved around 200 people who had actually been arrested at the protest. Yet more than a million names would have been handed over to the Trump administration under this demand. To underline that – information would have been gathered on people who were not even accused of a crime and who had done nothing wrong other than to visit a website about an anti-Trump protest. The target company fought back in court, resulting in the DOJ demand being narrowed substantially. But the company was still required to hand over a significant amount of information to the DOJ.
And regardless of the outcome, which was only achieved after an expensive legal fight, the DOJ making such a broad request in the first place is a clear instance of intimidation against anyone who might consider visiting a site like this – a site which simply organized an anti-Trump protest. (This example is particularly ironic given that on Tuesday, Jeff Sessions gave an address on “free speech” at Georgetown University Law Center, the focus of which was to criticize universities for stifling free speech. He also took the opportunity while there to defend Trump’s criticism of the protesting NFL players).
And those are just a few of the more prominent examples. But here’s the thing, this is not limited to Trump or the Trump administration. A state representative in Louisiana has just suggested cutting millions of dollars in state funds (e.g. tax breaks) to the New Orleans Saints after some of the team’s players chose not to stand for the national anthem.
And the Republican Party as a whole has shown a notable intolerance for dissent coming from the citizenry. Obviously this does not apply to every single elected Republican official. But overall, the Party has had a pattern recently of trying to quash criticism from its constituents. They’ve done this either by trying to discredit or demonize protesters or by finding ways to make protesting illegal, or in one extreme case, by driving an activist out of her job. I wrote about this pattern back in May in a post called Detest the Protest, and given what’s been happening the last few days, now seems like a good time to repost it. So here is the relevant portion . . .
WNYC, a public radio station in New York City, reported in mid-May about an extraordinary action taken by Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, a Republican Congressman from New Jersey. Frelinghuysen sent a fundraising letter to a board member at a local bank and used the letter as an opportunity to complain that an employee of the bank was a member of an activist group that opposed him. The activist group is called 11th for Change, and it formed after Trump’s election with the purpose of pushing their representatives to oppose Trump’s agenda. The employee who was targeted by Frelinghuysen’s letter, Saily Avelenda, said that she was confronted by her boss about the letter and had to write a statement about it to the bank’s CEO. She said that the pressure she received as a result of the letter was one of several things that caused her to resign from the bank.
The letter Frelinghuysen sent was a form letter asking for donations for his next campaign. It said in part, “But let’s be clear that there are organized forces — both national and local — who are already hard at work to put a stop to an agenda of limited government, economic growth, stronger national security.” Then there was a handwritten asterisk added in above the word “local” which linked to a handwritten note at the bottom of the page that said “P.S. One of the ringleaders works in your bank!” The letter also attached a news article which quoted Avelenda by name.
Setting aside her employer’s behavior for purposes of this post, the behavior of Rep. Frelinghuysen in this tale is quite shocking. This is a pretty clear case of intimidation. Avelenda was exercising her first amendment right to free expression and free assembly – doing what our leaders should hope that more Americans would do, which is to engage in the political process – and because he didn’t like the content of her expression or the group she was choosing to gather with, he found out where she worked and interfered with her employment.
Even worse, the fact that he called Avelenda a “ringleader” went beyond simply conveying her involvement in the group and instead insinuated some sort of illegal or nefarious behavior on her part. (The Merriam-Webster definition of “ringleader” is: a leader of a ring of individuals engaged especially in improper or unlawful activities). Legal experts say that Frelinghuysen most likely didn’t break any laws, but ethics experts all seem to agree that he clearly crossed ethical boundaries by engaging in this behavior. And I don’t think we even need ethics experts to tell us that this is not appropriate behavior for the people who are supposed to be our voice in government.
Rep. Frelinghuysen’s Actions Didn’t Come Out of the Blue
What makes this tactic even more disturbing is that it seems to be a logical extension of the GOP’s pattern of trying to discredit or demonize those who organize against them. This is not an entirely new tactic for politicians to use, but it’s been a particularly popular tactic for Republicans in the age of Trump, when activism against their Party has been frequent & energetic, and Republicans have employed this tactic particularly venomously.
The most visible, obvious form of activism comes in the form of protest, so it’s protestors who’ve generally been the focus of these GOP efforts. We’ve seen over & over again in the months since Trump’s inauguration, claims by members of the GOP that people protesting against them are “paid professionals” or some variation on that theme. The implication being that the protestors are not authentic, but just people hired by some corporate elites (George Soros is a favorite elite boogeyman) to do their bidding. Another claim that often goes hand-in-hand with that one is that the protestors are “bussed in” from out of town, or that they don’t represent “real America” or “middle America” but that they just come from New York and California, where apparently no real Americans live. At times they will even portray the protesters as violent, calling them mobs or thugs simply because the crowds are loud and energetic.
GOP Attempts to Delegitimize Protestors
For example, Trump said that “Tax Day” protestors calling for him to release his tax returns were all paid and that someone should look into who was paying them. Sean Spicer said that the people protesting the first version of the Muslim ban were paid “astroturf,” despite the fact that those protestors wouldn’t even have had any advance time to plan, since no one knew ahead of time that the Muslim ban was coming.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz claimed protestors at town halls were “a paid attempt to bully and intimidate” and that they were “not representative of the average person, certainly not in Utah. It might be in San Francisco or Seattle but not here. Not in middle America.” And Rep. Dave Brat dismissed town hall protestors as a “Soros-funded movement.” In fact, Trump’s very first tweet after winning the Presidential election was a complaint about “professional protestors”
Sen. Cory Gardner complained that people calling his office and sending him emails were “paid protesters” from California and New York. And Sen. Pat Toomey blamed “people from outside our state” for clogging up his office.
The Utah GOP delayed town hall meetings in February, claiming in a press release that is was due to “acts of intimidation and violence” by protestors. This came shortly after Rep. Dana Rohrabacher in California accused a “mob” of “violently attacking” one of his staffers. Police however described that same incident as an accident, which occurred when the staffer was trying to pull Rohrabacher’s office door closed while an activist was trying to hold it open to speak with the staffer.
GOP Attempts to Intimidate Protestors
Then having sufficiently made the case that the protestors, as a class are thugs and/or criminals, or at the very least cons just out to make some easy money and waste time at your (legitimate constituent’s) town hall, the GOP then proceeded to introduce a whole raft of legislation aimed at stifling the ability of people to exercise their right to protest. Thankfully though, because it’s difficult to make legislation in this vein without violating citizens’ First Amendment (and other) rights, most of this legislation was never actually passed. But the fact that it was contemplated in state after state by Republican legislatures gives a pretty good indication of how they would have liked to handle these protests.
In February, the Arizona Senate passed a bill that would allow criminal racketeering charges against anyone who participated in or helped organize a protest that turned violent. So the charges wouldn’t just be against those who participated in the violence, but against anyone who took part in the protest in any way, even if they had no connection at all to the violence or its perpetrators
This would obviously intimidate many people away from taking part in a protest out of fear that there’d be even the slight chance a violent incident could break out that they’d have no control over, yet would still be held responsible for. And it’s hard not to think that was the intent of the bill – to stifle protest through intimidation. As the Arizona Republic explained at the time:
The measure adds rioting to the organized crime statutes and says an overt act isn’t needed to prove conspiracy to riot, meaning someone could be charged who wasn’t involved in the actual riot.
All 17 Senate Republicans supported the measure and all 13 Democrats voted no. It now heads to the House.
Senate Bill 1142 would allow prosecutors to seize a person’s assets in addition to enhanced criminal charges.
After this bill passed the Senate, it gained attention nationally, and there was a lot of pushback from the public. Reportedly the Republican Speaker of the House, J.D. Mesnard, received a ton of phone calls and messages about the bill, and eventually he was convinced to kill the bill. Mesnard said the intent was never to stifle protest.
Oklahoma, on the other hand, has actually gone through with passing a pair of laws aimed at protestors. Earlier this month, Oklahoma passed a law that was apparently meant to prevent pipeline protests similar to the Dakota Access protests in North Dakota. The first law would impose “steep fines or prison time against people convicted of trespassing at a critical infrastructure facility” to disrupt operations. This would include pipelines. This first law probably doesn’t seem all that unreasonable.
But it’s a second law, signed the same day, where the real bite comes in. That law would make civilly liable anyone who “compensates, provides consideration or remunerates a person for trespassing.” Like, the proposed Arizona law above, this could ensnare people who haven’t engaged in any conduct we’d normally consider unlawful, but simply by associating with the guilty party, they become guilty as well.
For example, if a person allowed an out-of-town protestor to stay in their home, that could be considered compensation, and they then might be held liable if that person trespassed at a pipeline facility. Once again, it’s hard not to think this is aimed at stifling the ability of citizens to exercise their First Amendment rights to free speech and free assembly. It’s difficult to see any other purpose behind it. Unfortunately, unlike in Arizona, Governor Mary Fallon of Oklahoma went ahead and signed this into law.
Additionally, in late February, when the anti-Trump protests were at their height, the Washington Post put out a report on the numerous other states around the country that were considering anti-protest legislation:
Since the election of President Trump, Republican lawmakers in at least 18 states have introduced or voted on legislation to curb mass protests in what civil liberties experts are calling “an attack on protest rights throughout the states.”
From Virginia to Washington state, legislators have introduced bills that would increase punishments for blocking highways, ban the use of masks during protests, indemnify drivers who strike protesters with their cars and, in at least once case, seize the assets of people involved in protests that later turn violent. The proposals come after a string of mass protest movements in the past few years, covering everything from police shootings of unarmed black men to the Dakota Access Pipeline to the inauguration of Trump.
Some are introducing bills because they say they’re necessary to counter the actions of “paid” or “professional” protesters who set out to intimidate or disrupt, a common accusation that experts agree is largely overstated. “
As the anti-Trump protests have quieted down somewhat, these efforts have seemed to die down a bit as well.
But looked at in its totality, from the rhetorical efforts to delegitimize protestors & activists, to these many efforts at criminalizing or making protests unlawful, it is quite clear that Republicans have been going to great lengths during the Trump presidency to ignore – and even silence – the voices of their constituents. The obvious reason for this is that hearing those voices would require them to be accountable to what those voices are saying.