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At risk

This is an essay from Everett Wohlers, who was a staffer in the Idaho Secretary of State’s office from 1976 to 1998.

Over the past two weeks, following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, we have seen mass protests arise all over the country, and indeed even in other countries. While there have been notable cases in which opportunists have used the protests as cover to engage in violent rioting and looting, the vast majority of the protests have been principled and peaceful.

The responses of the Trump administration and some municipal police forces have been far from what should be expected in a country whose Constitution guarantees its citizens the rights of freedom of expression and peaceable assembly. The most egregious case, of course, was the use of military forces, at the order of Attorney General William Barr, to attack the peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square with tear gas, concussion grenades and direct physical assault.

In the days since, we have seen graphic displays of physical violence by a number of municipal police forces against peaceful gatherings of protesters, including violent tackling, beating with batons, forceful and injurious knocking of people to the ground, tasing, pepper spraying and shooting with “less than lethal” munitions, in some cases causing serious and permanent injury.

As I contemplated those horrible cases of abuse and violation of the Constitutional rights of Americans, I thought of my last personal experience with a peaceful protest against a government.

I was working on a World Bank Group project with the government of Jordan in Amman. One day, when I arrived at the building of the government agency with which I was working, I found that it was the target of a mass protest by Jordanian citizens. The crowd was chanting and yelling, with signs waving, but all without violence. The Jordanian police were there, but they stood off to the side, chatting among themselves, making no moves or threats toward the protesters. In retrospect, the behavior of the protesters was very much the same as that of the protesters in Lafayette Square and in the cities around the US in recent days, and the conduct of the police was respectful of the protesters’ right to protest.

Reflecting on my experience in Amman, and comparing it with the actions of the troops in Lafayette Square and the municipal police departments, I wondered how it could be that the country that we like to characterize as the world’s greatest democracy has a violent, repressive reaction to peaceful protest, whereas a small Arab monarchy behaves as we should expect of our government with regard to our First Amendment rights of free expression and peaceable assembly. My conclusion is that our rights and our system of government are at serious risk, and we must act to preserve them.
 

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