(playful Vaudeville music) (record scratching) - Well, here I am again, just an average guy who can't catch a break, and this time they've made protesting illegal.
So how am I supposed to speak truth to power?
(Vaudeville music) Protesting isn't just a feel-good activity, it's the origin story of America.
You know, that time we turned Boston harbor into a cup of Earl Gray, and then we fast forward, women's suffrage, civil rights, the Vietnam War, the tax revolt, the AIDS crisis, income inequality.
The list goes on and on and on.
And this isn't just the stuff in history books.
One if five Americans have participated in a protest since 2016, a lot of them for the first time ever, and the largest protest in U.S. history, it was just a couple years ago, the Women's March in 2017.
But when does protesting cross the line, and is there such thing as going too far?
- You know, protest is kind of like water, right?
And the job of protest is to move around barriers and restrictions that people try to place on it, so.
- Protest is like water, did you hear that somewhere else?
- Well, you know Bruce Lee, it's a lesson that Bruce Lee has given us.
- Be like water.
- To always be like water.
- Yeah yeah yeah.
So I didn't make that up, but I maybe modified (laughs) the metaphor.
- Where I live in the twin cities of Minnesota, protesters for the Black Lives Matter movement have shut down highways, airports, and even the Mall of America, and the public reaction which you can read for yourself online, has been both immediate and very divided.
In reaction to these protests, Minnesota lawmakers introduced a bill increasing the penalties for public gatherings that interfere with other services, essentially arguing that protesters don't have the right to jeopardize their own safety and the safety of others.
The protesters responded that their lives are already in jeopardy because of police violence.
- [Woman TV Announcer] Saying quote, we are condemning the ongoing killings of black people by police in the twin cities, and across the country.
- As you can imagine, the debate here is far from settled.
Can you describe the bill that you proposed to increase penalties for protesting on a highway to people that just don't know about it right now?
(anticipatory music) (name banner crackles) - Yeah, so my goal was to try to disincentivize what I saw as very dangerous behavior or activity, and what it does is takes it from a misdemeanor up to a gross misdemeanor to obstruct the freeway, to obstruct light rail, and to obstruct access into a airport.
- How did you feel when Representative Zerwas proposed this bill, like what was the first feeling that you had?
(name banner crackles) - I was really a little upset.
I was so upset that I went to him and I asked for a meeting.
- Well, Representative Moran wanted to speak to you after that bill was proposed, and you all had a private meeting.
What was that like?
- I thought it was really good.
I know later she said that she didn't feel like, you know, I kind of heard her.
I think I did hear.
I think we had a really good conversation quite frankly.
- It's against the law to block highways and/or to go on a highway, you know, and my conversation with him is that we have hurting people here, and what you're doing by this law is trying to hurt people who are already hurting, to share with him that when King was protesting and marching over the Pettus bridge, that was at that time a highway.
- And how much would that cost a person, right, through the proposed bill?
- Yeah, so the proposed bill would be now up to 12 months in jail.
First time offense - probably wouldn't usually happen.
- No, not gonna happen.
It just falls under the blanket misdemeanor, and then up to a $3,000 file, a max fine on a first-time offense, probably isn't gonna happen.
- It's already against the law, but when people who are seeing an injustice who are feeling hurt, you lost your son, your father, your brother, your uncle, someone, and we can see a consistent theme, is that we have to bring the ugliness to light.
Sometimes that means that other people have to be inconvenienced.
- The key idea behind all of this is that there's always been push and pull in this country over what protests represent.
On one hand, to be effective, they need to be noticed.
And on the other, law and order needs to be maintained.
But people do get hut.
Just look at Kent State in 1970.
Four students were killed, two of whom weren't even protesting, and the images from one that one incident have been informing our sense of civil disobedience ever since.
Now beyond this, we need to look at the legal history of this issue.
In 1964, a Ku Klux Klan leader was arrested after he made a speech suggesting some sort of revengeance for the nation's civil rights progress.
However, in the case called Brandenberg versus Ohio the Supreme Court overturned his conviction and said the speech was protected by the First Amendment, largely because the court couldn't find evidence Brandenberg's words were likely to lead to violence.
If you want an idea of how powerful the First Amendment really is in our country, about a decade later, Neo-Nazis won the right to march through a Chicago suburb with a large Jewish population and many Holocaust survivors, which means the question we'd be faced with if we were refounding America today, at what point does a protest become a criminal activity?
- What protesters have historically said and we were protesting for racial justice on the freeway, there was a group of anarchists that infiltrated our protest and all hell broke loose.
- That almost kind of sounds like the same narrative as like when you speak to, we had an episode where we spoke to police officers and this same narrative was presented.
Hey, we're here to help, there are some bad apples, and protesters could say hey we're here to help, there are some anarchists.
- I mean, sometimes people do get caught up in the fray of a protest.
Is there ever a time when a protest can go too far?
- Sure, of course there is.
There are times when protests go too far.
There's also more times in my experience when politics go too far.
I think that when we get into these conversations about how protests can go wrong or when protest is ineffective, I actually think it serves the agenda of the very same people who are trying to ban people from protesting on freeways and highways.
It advances a conversation that effectively goes around the very issue that we're trying to address.
- If the U.S. were to put more restrictions on protesting, we wouldn't be the first democracy to move in that direction.
In 2015, Spain's government passed the Citizen's Security Law which allows police to fine unauthorized protesters up to $650,000 for demonstrating near a transportation facility or a nuclear power plant.
They can also fine up to $30,000 for taking photos of police, failing to show I.D., or assembling near government buildings without permission.
- Why do you think that there's this narrative, the narrative is kind of turning towards criminalizing protesting?
- It has a perfect role in a world that is imperfect about creating a space and place in time, where injustices, we need to find some justice, right?
And so without that, you know, I think we have lost part of democracy.
- President Richard Nixon famously spoke out against his protesters to rally his own political base, and during World War I, Woodrow Wilson signed legislation that in practice made it a crime to criticize the government during the war effort.
As we talk about this, we also need to acknowledge how history can change the narrative and their time and long before Twitter.
Even peaceful protesters like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. faced incredibly fierce criticism, but today they're almost universally remembered as American heroes.
- Just to be clear, when Martin Luther King was leading freedom rides through the South, trying to register poor black people to be able to vote, doing lunch counter sit-ins alongside people like Rosa Parks and moving bus boycotts, the majority of people at that time did not support their actions, and in fact they were being asked the same questions.
Why can't you not be so brash?
Why can't you not be so bold?
Why do you have to disturb the peace?
- Which raises the question, will a protest like this look different 50 years in the future, or is it unfair to compare closing down a highway with sitting in the white section of a bus?
- Are you going to continue to try to push the bill?
Are you going to kind of reform the way that you?
- You know, we've introduced the bill this year.
It didn't get an hearing.
You know, it certainly isn't the focal point of my agenda this year, and I don't see it being the focal point of my agenda next year.
- So here's where we want you to weigh in.
When is a protest a lawful expression of your First Amendment rights, and when is it something we should punish?
And if we made America from scratch today, where would we draw the line?
(thoughtful piano music) (upbeat synthesizer music)