At least some South African miners dodged legal bullets this week, after ducking metal ones at the hands of the local police force last month. 34 others were not so lucky, having senselessly lost their lives performing a task anyone should be able to safely participate in. They were protesting. Not only were humans slaughtered, 259 of the arrested miners were charged by the national prosecutor with the murders. Charges were eventually dropped, the South African government apparently pleased at having flexed its judicial muscle and having struck fear and intimidation in innocent civilians. This brings up the contentious idea of what constitutes a legal protest, protected in the United States by the First Amendment, and what is an illegal assembly, prone to disruption by the authorities. Within this president’s administration, both sides of the political spectrum have hosted protests and demonstrations demanding anything from birth certificates filled out in triplicate to a complete halt on drilling for oil. The Tea Party protests never had an issue with police confrontation, while the Occupy groups could never seem to avoid it. Why did one group come under much closer scrutiny than another? Was it form? Camping out in public without an end date was very different than seniors yelling at town hall meetings. Was it message? Or was it based on stereotyping? Were the Occupiers more dangerous and threatening than the Tea Party mobs?
As the Obama administration completed its first year and conservatives woke up to the reality that they had a black, Democratic president, their thoughts turned to future elections, and plans were formulated on how to win seats in Congress in the 2010 mid-term elections. Believing Obama to be an illegal alien Muslim socialist, conservatives felt they had to swing the pendulum just as hard in the opposite direction. Thus was born the Tea Party movement. Simple goals of less taxes and government intrusion in citizens lives. Besides having lawn chair protests on government property, members expressed their rage at lively town hall events, berating their government representatives over non-existent issues, and warning of the fascist Nazi takeover that was inevitable if we didn’t change the movement of the political current, and soon. While I wouldn’t describe these town hall meetings as peaceful, mass arrests were never made, and people were allowed to speak their views to their members of Congress, no matter how radical they were, as they should be able to. An inquisitive mind is a horrible thing to waste, and while I vehemently disagree with their views and opinions, I will always fight for their ability to express them without intrusion and physical intimidation from the police and other various authority figures.
2011 saw a tidal wave of protests around the world. The Arab Spring movement toppled decades of stale regimes and Russians came out by the tens of thousands, ignoring threats by the KGB, to decry the re-engineering of Vladimir Putin back into the presidency for a third, non-consecutive term. Within our borders, September 17th marked the beginning of the Occupy protests. Ordinary people, from different backgrounds, opposing ages, and carrying numerous views on how to correct our country, came forth and set up camp in major cities across the country. Towns large and small had representation and organized protests were covered by the same media as the Tea Parties’. Perhaps it was the mobile element of the Occupiers that set them apart from the Tea Partiers and made them appear dangerous. Tea Partiers stayed put and yelled through bullhorns at passers-by. They also didn’t look like the average protestor police are used to encountering. Grandpa sitting with his oxygen tank is not very intimidating. Nonetheless, as far too many cell phone videos have shown, police brutality was rampant throughout the entire Occupy autumn of 2011. Protestors being corralled and beat with truncheons, Iraq war veterans being hit in the head with tear gas canisters, and unarmed students sitting on the ground being casually laced with pepper spray was an oft seen sight on the nightly news. Were they assembling illegally? Maybe. But it shows that some forms of protest, the blander kind, are tolerated, and stereotyping based on appearance and perceived political views is abundant and police power is readily abused. We may not have it as bad as other, more oppressive countries, but some forms of dissent are more digestible to the general public.
The flavor of a protest should not determine its legality or authenticity. Just because one group contains more members of AARP does not make them any more or less valid than 19 year olds airing their grief about skyrocketing tuition payments. Most citizens have very real concerns about what’s happening around them, and should be able to air those grievances without worrying about being hit over the head and arrested. As September 17th nears, Occupy anniversary plans are being set into motion. I’m sure police will never allow them to set up camp as they did last year, and I won’t be the least bit surprised if their abusive side eventually takes over during a protest. They may be held more accountable than South African police, but their actions last year show a lack of tolerance for the Occupy movement. The United States Constitution, in its First Amendment, made sure ordinary citizens could complain publicly without intimidation. It’s a fantastic law that implies a level playing field, that no one groups’ views are held higher than anothers, and we all have the right to open and active dissent. Police would do well to remember this, and not succumb to childish fits of rage just because they disagree with protesting style.