Editorial: Taking away protesters’ rights will only further divide the nation

Let’s talk about Senate Bill 160. First mentioned on page 9A of this issue, SB 160 seeks to increase penalties for harming a peace officer, but also, and most importantly, wants to “increase the penalty for obstructing highways, streets, sidewalks or other public passages to a misdemeanor of a high and aggravated nature.”

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Who tends to obstruct highways and streets? Protesters? And have there been more of them lately in Atlanta, and all around the United States? Absolutely.

Finding ways to protect police and civilians from action they choose not to make themselves involved in sounds absolutely logical. And the truth is, there were police officers injured during the inauguration protests.

But there were also hundreds of protesters arrested, so how much more power would this give to police? Is it just so they will be able to charge those protesters with ‘obstructing sidewalks’? But won’t sidewalks consequently be “obstructed” when mass amounts of people are practicing their First Amendment rights and protesting against outcomes they don’t like?

The problem isn’t Georgia’s efforts to increase security measures for police. Some protesters are angrier than others and may cause injuries that the organizers or the majority of the protest population did not intend. Seeking measures against those individuals may sound reasonable.

But the problem is that these “regulations” and “measures” are a growing pattern around the United States, post-election. In fact, according to the Washington Post, over 18 states have proposed bills of the sort which include “increasing punishments for blocking highways, ban the use of masks during protests, indemnify drivers who strike protesters with their cars and, in at least one case, seize the assets of people involved in protests that later turn violent.”

What? “Indemnify drivers who strike protesters”? As in, compensate individuals that injured protesters with their vehicles? How does that sound fair or legal? And most importantly, does anyone else notice how these rules divide the nation even more? The right to freely and safely protest is one of the last things these protesters feel they have left and these rules take that away from them.

Protesters should not feel they are defying police by protesting – protests have proved time and time again to bring about change when all else fails. And setting up a stage of government & police versus protesters will just create more hostility. Those who want to take to the streets to voice their concerns will not be swayed by legislation seeking to put them in jail. They will probably be further angered instead – and besides, when has jail stopped a passionate activist?

Most importantly, let’s address the lawmakers’ objections that this bill in fact is not intended to ‘curb protesters’ rights’ but rather make those procedures safer and more organized. But how are protests even protests if they’re organized? Where are the protesters supposed to walk if not on sidewalks and streets while they’re making their way around town? And who would even know there was a protest going on and people expressing their discontent if it was quietly held in some church’s backyard? Wrong, wrong, wrong. Protests are supposed to be loud, and they’re supposed to be unpredictable – not violent – but also not meant to be the most convenient for the city.

That’s kind of the whole point.

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