They hear you.
If you ever marched in the rain and chanted because an unarmed black kid got killed in a hailstorm of government bullets…
If you sang labor movement songs to the senate majority leader in your university library until a pale, baby-faced campus cop in a baggy uniform led you away…
If you’ve ever been ignored by an elected representative in a crowded public place despite your impassioned pleas for reunited families or insulin or some by-god truth for once, if you stood in the streets to block traffic, or sat in an airport terminal, or camped on sacred ground, or chained yourself to a courthouse door or carried a sign…
If you have done any of these things, and then asked yourself, “Why am I here? What good am I doing? Why should I keep showing up? Is anyone listening?” I have the answer.
They hear you, and they are afraid.
How do I know? How is it that I, a high school dropout, a mediocre music-maker, a part-time shitposter, an opinion columnist, know the minds of elected officials who sit on the hilltop and make the laws by which we, in all deference to our wilting democratic institutions, must live?
Because I listen to what they say. They say you are paid to protest. They say that you don’t have anything better to do, and that you don’t have a job. They call you dangerous and violent and crisis actors and spoiled brats and shitheads and sluts and slurs too slurrilous to mention here. And still you protest.
So, now they need to say that you are a criminal. That your protest is not just irresponsible, not just fatuous, not just dangerous, but criminal. If you are a criminal, you are under control. If you are a criminal, you are inert, spent, burned out, obsolete, a null set. If you are a criminal, you are not just a threat to the established order, you are a threat to everyone and everything, and thus a threat to nothing; if you are a criminal, no one will team up with you.
Since Ferguson, a slate of bills has been working its way through red-state legislatures with the purpose of making peaceful protesters into criminals. The peculiar shade of yellow in which these bills are written is unmistakable. It’s the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. It’s big business. It’s a dying, white establishment. It’s fear. Fear that you are teaming up. Fear that you will keep on doing it.
These bills would make you a criminal, with attendant serious criminal penalties, for: wearing a mask, blocking a highway, “seriously annoying” others, picketing and, as is the case in Indiana’s SB 471, trespassing onto “critical infrastructure.”
This bill, which is headed to Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb’s desk as I write this, is like a mega-prohibition on trespassing (something that, the reader of above-average intelligence will note, is already a crime). It is a direct result of the Standing Rock protests, and its intention is clear: Protest in the wrong place, make a misstep, wander onto land that happens to belong to “critical infrastructure”-— which as it turns out can be just about anywhere — and you’re a felon. Not just a small-time trespasser, but a hardened criminal; someone who can’t get a security clearance or, you know, a job. Maybe you’ll pay some big fines. Maybe you’ll get locked up for a bit. Maybe next time you’ll think twice about that chant, that march, that snarky sign.
SB 471, like its dissent-quashing siblings, is not an invention of anyone who was actually elected to serve the people of Indiana. Some asshole oil-industry lawyer who gets paid to make rich assholes into even richer assholes wrote this bill for ALEC, which is a think tank full of rich assholes. ALEC then hands it off to the less imaginative assholes whom people in our states voted for (usually under the assumption that they’d be writing laws that actually fix the problems at home. Which reminds me: When the fuck has anyone ever protested a pipeline in Indiana?). Then, the less-imaginative asshole gets to be elected again, because he’ll be rewarded with lots of campaign dollars for being such a good dog this session. This is how the sausage of American law gets made now.
Some version of this bill has snaked its way through at least eight states this year. It looks benign enough, and lawmakers are very busy so, sure, why the hell not? Everyone votes for it, even the Democrats. Just look at that bipartisanship, all for the noble cause of busting up peaceful protests! Other states — the ones that actually have pipeline protests — have gone all in. In Oklahoma, wander onto oil industry property and face $100,000 fine, while your favorite “conspiring organization” could get fined a million dollars. That’s enough to bankrupt the average college student, that student’s professor and the local chapter of the Sierra Club, which set up the Facebook event inviting them both to engage in the time-honored practice of public protest (for the sake of the whole goddamn world). Maybe next time you’ll think twice about clicking “going.”
Of course, it could have been worse. One bill that made the rounds would, in effect, legalize the murder of protesters who may have posed an inconvenience to motorists, by encouraging their removal “by any means necessary” (read: squishing them with trucks). This particular vintage of fascism died on its gnarled, creeping vine in Indiana, Florida and North Dakota. Stay in the streets long enough, though, and you’ll see it grow back.
If one focuses on the chilling effect, the incredible breadth, or the archaic cruelty that these bills represent, an important lesson might be missed: They are a product of fear. Assembly is still powerful. It still matters. The fat, clumsy hand of mafioso authoritarianism closes around whatever airways it can, but the one that can never be completely obstructed is the one that calls out injustice where it lives, right to its face.
They hear you. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be trying so hard to shut you up. •
Dan Canon is a civil rights lawyer and law professor. “Midwesticism”is his short-documentary series about Midwesterners who are making the world a better place. Watch it at: patreon.com/dancanon.