Laurie Penny: In Donald Trump’s America, the crackdown on protesters is the real free speech issue

In Donald Trump’s America, The Crackdown on Protesters is the Real Free Speech Issue

Laurie Penny, NewStatesman, May 4, 2017

A nation has decided that preaching hatred is non-violent protected speech, but standing outside shouting, holding a sign and wearing black is an act of violence punishable by years in jail.

There’s a free speech crisis in America, but it’s not the one you’re thinking of. On 20 January 2017, a few miles away from the inauguration of Donald Trump in Washington, DC, more than two hundred people were rounded up, attacked with tear gas, pepper spray and batons, held in a police kettle for hours in violation of the standard procedure for dealing with protest, and eventually charged with felony crimes. Those two hundred people included journalists, bystanders and many individuals who were doing no more than holding signs and shouting, plus a few more who were later arrested in connection with allegedly organising the protest. All have now been served with extra charges that could see them jailed for a decade or more, along with the lifelong stigma of felony convictions.

“Defendants who were facing one felony charge are now facing multiple charges with jail exposure of decades,” said Mark Goldstone, an attorney for several of the protesters, who has defended activists in DC for more than 30 years. “It is very damaging and chilling to freedom of speech [for individuals to face] such serious charges for conduct engaged in by others.” Many suspect that the new charges are designed to frighten protesters into taking a plea deal – even if a jury trial would have found them innocent.

This sets a dangerous precedent. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the National Lawyers’ Guild and others have condemned the blanket charges as an attack on citizens’ constitutional right to protest, as representatives of the defendants sue the DC police for excessive brutality.

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