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Protest, Police, and Military in America: Peaceably to Assemble and Petition

boston tea party museum

The Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum. On Dec. 16, 1773, colonists marched onboard the tea ships docked in Griffin`s Wharf. (Dejan Baric/Dreamstime.com) 

By Wednesday, 01 July 2020 03:34 PM Current | Bio | Archive

The following article is the second of six parts.

After many decades of colonial oppression, our Founders made sure to put "the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances" in the First Amendment of the Constitution. No mention there of destruction of property. Being idealists, they left the wording purposely vague so it could be adaptable to unpredictable future circumstances.

However, since the Boston Tea Party did involve destruction of property, it is not unreasonable to assume "assembling and petitioning" might include acts of that nature, i.e. peaceable civil disobedience, or "direct action," as it’s worded lately. England could have responded to the Boston Tea Party and ended the oppressive Tea Tax, changing the course of history (and we’d be part of Canada), but King George missed his chance.

It’s worthy of note here that Big Food is nothing new. For centuries, the East India Company had a huge monopoly on the tea market and powerful corrupting grip on the English government. England forced the Americans to buy only its tea and pay a Tea Tax, which was deeply resented. That oppressive tax was the origin of our foundational "no taxation without representation" grievance.

So, you can gather with a half-dozen comrades on your state capitol building steps and march with signs to protect your favorite fish or reptile from extinction, then go home satisfied you’ve made an impression. Or you can ratchet up your "petition of grievance" to civil disobedience, now known as direct action, and dump the tea into the harbor.

Flash-forward 155 years to another restive English colony, India, where the nasty East India Company was up to no good again, this time with salt. India’s poor had always been able to make artisanal salt by evaporating sea water, but for a century, the English made that illegal and forced them to buy only East India Company salt.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s hero Mahatma Ghandi tapped into the widespread resentment of this injustice and launched the Salt Satyagraha. In Sanskrit, satyagraha translates as "insistence on the truth" — not that far off from "speaking truth to power," as it’s expressed today.

Ghandi and 78 volunteers began a 240-mile march, stopping at towns along the way to illegally manufacture salt and pick up more and more marchers. Eventually, the English had to throw 60,000 protestors into jail, but this only sparked further resentment, and millions of Indians just stopped using East India Company’s salt altogether. Non-violent direct action was the cornerstone of India’s long struggle for independence.

Now that we’ve established that, somehow, oppression by food can be the most degrading type of oppression, flash forward again, by 30 years, to the lunch counter at F.W. Woolworth in Greensboro, North Carolina. Four Black college kids went to the 66-stool Whites Only counter and asked for coffee. The white waitress answered, "We don’t serve Negroes here." So, the four of them just sat there until it closed at night.

The next day, more than 20 Black students showed up, with schoolwork, since they knew they’d be there a long time. The third day, it was 60 students. The fourth, more than 400. The movement then spread to a dozen other segregated Southern lunch counters, as well as to transport facilities, swimming pools, libraries, art galleries, parks, beaches, and museums. In face of this movement, most businesses changed their racist policies, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 mandated desegregation of all public accommodations.

The basic idea of sit-ins, lie-ins, die-ins, etc. is for protesters to put their bodies where they are not supposed to be. In Greensboro, it was at a Whites-Only lunch counter. For Rosa Parks, it was in the front of the bus. Tank Man just stood there, blocking a long line of tanks.

Protest marches get in the way of pedestrian and vehicle traffic. A protest march requires a parade permit from the local police, who can rule out the best public areas or deny requests for protests they don’t agree with, based on spurious grounds like "security risk." Then, even peaceful protest marchers can be arrested for marching without a permit.

Civil disobedience often breaks the law. How then does our government draw the line between the type of peaceable civil disobedience which is a First Amendment right and the type which is not? And, most importantly, is being arrested in fact some kind of expected outcome for a protester involved in civil disobedience? In Ghandi’s words, "Nonviolence in its dynamic condition means conscious suffering."

More to follow in Part III.

Henry Seggerman managed Korea International Investment Fund, the oldest South Korean hedge fund, from 2001 until 2014. He is a regular columnist for the Korea Times and has also been a guest speaker, written for, or been interviewed by The Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek, Bloomberg Television, Reuters and FinanceAsia — covering not only North and South Korea, but also Asia, as well as U.S. politics. Read Henry Seggerman's Reports — More Here.

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Civil disobedience often breaks the law. How then does our government draw the line between the type of peaceable civil disobedience which is a First Amendment right and the type which is not?
civil, rights, greensboro
Wednesday, 01 July 2020 03:34 PM
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