Opponents of President Trump’s travel ban say it is “a Muslim ban” that violates the First Amendment’s prohibition against laws restricting religion. The courts will decide that. But there’s no doubt that the response to the ban was clearly legal within another part of the same amendment: “The right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
The people who turned out at airports to stand up for the admission of refugees and immigrants are part of a powerful and heartening trend – a growing engagement in peaceful protest. North Carolina has been a main stage for this new civic assertiveness. The Moral Monday protests drew national attention to the injustices of the Republican-led legislature’s right-wing agenda.
More protests and national attention came to North Carolina with last year’s passage of House Bill 2. The law requires people to use the bathroom that matches the gender on their birth certificate and excludes gay and transgender people from discrimination protections. The HB2 protests started with gay rights groups, but spread quickly. The opposition has been joined by hundreds of businesses, entertainers and various organizations that refuse to hold conventions or sporting events in North Carolina. The protests and boycotts have focused attention on transgender people and served to educate the wider population. Broader understanding has led to broader acceptance.
This year opened with the mother of all marches, the Women’s March, on Jan. 21. More than a half-million people descended on the nation’s capital and thousands joined marches around the nation and the world. In Raleigh, where people are getting good at this sort of thing, 17,000 people turned out.
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Last week brought another wave of activism as thousands of people mobilized to call their U.S. senators in opposition to Betsy DeVos’ nomination as U.S. secretary of education.
Such protests and marches are in themselves nothing new, but this latest wave seems different in the diversity of the crowds and the altruism of the agendas.
Young people protested the Vietnam War as unjust, but the young men also had a stake in having it end before they had to go. Union marchers sought better pay. Civil rights marchers wanted laws against segregation and racial discrimination. The marches and protests of this second decade of the 21st century are less focused on a specific cause and more driven by a sense of common threat and mutual interest.
Surely in Raleigh, the protesters are remarkable for their range of ages, race, gender, religion and ethnicity. Conservative lawmakers may see them as all the same – liberals – which is generally true, but their diversity is also striking.
It’s ironic that this new protest wave began with a movement that seemed a failure, Occupy Wall Street. That leaderless movement was criticized for its lack of clear demands, but its vagueness may have best expressed what spurred it – a sense that society and the economy were out of balance and income and power had tilted too heavily toward the wealthy and corporations. Occupy did not win direct concessions, but by introducing the concept of “we are the 99 percent,” it reordered the perception of economic inequality in the United States.
That sense of collective grievance against narrow powers at the top animated the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign. It also brought energy to Donald Trump’s campaign against economic powers abroad and “elites” at home. But Trump’s early moves have repudiated his pledge to support the left out and the left behind. He has filled his Cabinet with millionaires and billionaires, moved to reduce restraints on Wall Street and called for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
If Trump has already forgotten “the forgotten men and women,” others fail to see them even when they turn out by the thousands. Some Republican lawmakers in North Carolina dismissed the Moral Monday protesters as people paid by unions or as out-of-state agitators. Two state lawmakers recently got blasted for mocking the Women’s March. North Carolina’s U.S. Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis drew heat for their weak response to a flood of phone calls objecting to DeVos.
Lawmakers who feel safe in their gerrymandered districts wave off those who are taking their message to the streets. But those lawmakers will be swept out by what they ignore. “The right of the people peaceably to assemble” is the heart of democracy and, when exercised, the beginning of change.
It’s unfortunate that there is so much to protest these days, but encouraging to see so many who, in the words of the political philosopher Bob Marley, are willing to “get up, stand up” for their own and others’ rights.
Barnett: 919-829-4515, firstname.lastname@example.org