I have a friend who, following the George Zimmerman verdict and resulting demonstrations recently, chose to lump together the thousands of peaceful protestors nationwide with the few criminals who broke the law in two cities. He feels it was up to the protestors to stop the criminal acts, but, in fact, stopping someone intent on causing physical harm or destruction of property, whether in a public gathering or in private, is the very reason we have police. George Zimmerman forgot that. I hope the rest of us won’t.
This friend went on to condemn the demonstrations because sometimes this sort of thing can lead to negative or unintended consequences. But that’s true of anything and everything we do. In my opinion, this is a red herring that has suddenly gained momentum, thanks to the media. It is affecting the public’s opinion of the right to protest in general, which concerns me greatly.
It concerns me because the right to gather in public, to peacefully protest injustice, to dissent, is protected under the constitution and it plays an important role in a free and democratic society. It has helped to effect positive change in our country for over 240 years even though it is absolutely true that, on occasion, there can be unintended consequences as well.
I am also concerned that the right to protest is being inexorably fused and confused with the criminal acts of a very few. We do not condemn an entire football stadium full of people wildly yelling in support of one team or the other because of the overly rowdy or at times even criminal or violent behavior that is exhibited by a few for “their” team. These few are the guilty parties, not everyone rooting for the same team. This awareness should apply to public gatherings protected by the First Amendment as well.
While it’s extremely worrisome to see the media and now more of the public framing and condemning public demonstrations in a negative way, most disturbing of all is that this attitude has been used by our government for the last 11 years to justify methodically chipping away at this all-important civil and constitutional right. Talk about consequences, this is the most disturbing and frightening consequence of all.
The importance of preserving freedom of speech and the right to gather in public; to rally, protest, and dissent, cannot be overstated. It is one of the cornerstones in a free and democratic society. So to see public opinion turning on those who are legally standing up for their rights, is worrisome indeed.