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HOLMBERG: New laws silencing protests won’t help, but respect will

Posted at 1:23 AM, Jan 27, 2017
and last updated 2017-01-27 01:23:01-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- Whew! I thought 2015 and 2016 were the pinnacle for protests, our years of dissing and discontent.

Now it looks like they were just a warm-up for 2017.

We've already seen a spate of protests and one of the biggest marches ever, with more on tap.

We're seeing new tactics and more friction among the factions in these Divided States of America.

Earlier this week, activists in Portland, Oregon blocked a city bus, infuriating some passengers. Police vigorously chased down and tackled the blockers as onlookers cheered and shot video.

And Wednesday we saw the daring, high-flying protest by Greenpeace activists in DC hanging a giant "Resist" banner from a sky-scraping T-crane practically shadowing the White House. All seven were charged with burglary, property damage and unlawful entry.

Interstate blocking - not long ago a surprising development - has become much more common. Will protestors have to keep upping the ante to get our attention?

Several state lawmakers have proposed harsher penalties for protestors who block interstates or those whose acts are costly for rescuers and police. No new laws have been passed, and my guess is they likely won't.

Where are we heading?  Could things spin completely out of control?

Noted Richmond attorney and legal expert Steve Benjamin said we forget how much this type of free speech has been the foundation and backbone of our nation.

"The streets have always been the place for protests, "he said. "Long before there was social media and Twitter, there were the streets... That's what a march is... a temporary closure of the streets to deliver a message."

I get that. Blocking a roadway is kind of tame compared with dressing up like Indians and dumping the king's tea into the sea.

But lots of our greatest protestors - Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. among them - engaged in marches; emphasis on the word "march." They didn't block interstates so the folks stuck miles back in traffic had no idea what the message might be.

Benjamin said it's up to police to enforce laws, including those safeguarding our interstates and roads and the citizens who use them.

"We ask law enforcement to regulate lawful protests," Benjamin said, "but also to do what is necessary to accommodate our right to march and to be heard. And so law enforcement, yes, they are tasked with a tricky balance. But they're up to it. Richmond has proved that they're up to it."

I agree. But we've spent much of the past two years shouting and protesting about how racist and trigger-happy many police officers and police departments are in different cities across this land. That's asking a lot of a group so many institutionally distrust.

Benjamin said it's crucial that all of us realize that this land is built on freedom and justice, not on law and order.

No doubt, many of the greatest strides made by this nation, and humanity, have been forced upon us by those willing to stand up against injustice, even if it is legal or supported by the majority or the government in power.

"The moment that we criminalize protest and assembly in the name of preventing inconvenience," Benjamin said, "is the moment we begin to seriously undermine what this country is all about."

In terms of "the anger and the urgency that we see spreading across this country," he added, "the exact wrong response would be to try and stamp it out. What we have got to do is listen and understand what's causing the anger and the raised voices and the dissent and protests. We have to listen, in other words. We can't just turn away.  That's not who we are."

Amen. I wholeheartedly agree with Steve Benjamin on this, even though many of the protestors I see and hear don't seem too anxious to listen to concerns other than their own.

Protests, without a doubt, have been and are crucial to our democracy.

But I also think we're at a very dangerous crossroads right now. We're angry, upset and oh-so divided. Trust in the media has tumbled and we're not sure who's telling the truth among the many voices we hear on social media.

Sometimes it feels like this country is a powder keg, waiting to blow. One big beatdown by police or an explosion between citizens during a protest could race across this land like a prairie fire.

That's why it's up to all of us to be patient, vigilant, respectful and to be willing to listen.

New laws curbing protests won't protect us this year. It's up to us.

Respect protests. Protest respectfully.