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Republican officials take aim at progressive protests

The more progressive activism grows, the more some Republican policymakers look for new ways to curtail public protests.
Image: Protestors Rally At JFK Airport Against Muslim Immigration Ban
Protestors rally during a protest against the Muslim immigration ban at John F. Kennedy International Airport on January 28, 2017 in New York City.
Earlier this week, Donald Trump rolled out an interesting new conspiracy theory: the progressive protests that have unfolded in the wake of his election, the Republican president said, are his predecessor's fault. "I think that President Obama is behind it," Trump told Fox News.On Tuesday, Deputy White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders fielded some questions from reporters, one of whom asked if Trump has any "tangible evidence" to back up his conspiracy theory. Sanders said she'd let the president comment "stand for itself." Pressed further, Sanders added, "Look, I think the bottom line here is that we've all condemned the protests. I think that that's the bigger story here." It was a curious choice of words. Americans have gathered to express political dissent and White House officials want everyone to know they've "condemned the protests"? Why exactly would they do that?Worse, away from the DC Beltway, Republican policymakers aren't just condemning protests; they're exploring deliberate steps to try and block them from happening. The New York Times reported today:

In a season rife with demonstrations over immigration, pipelines, abortion, women's rights and more, Republican legislators in at least 16 states have filed bills intended to make protests more orderly or to toughen penalties against ones that go awry. Republicans in two other states, Massachusetts and North Carolina, have said they will file protest-related bills.Those numbers include only bills whose sponsors have specifically linked them to protests, said Jonathan Griffin, a policy analyst who tracks the measures at the National Conference of State Legislatures.... [I]nterviews and news reports suggest that some of the measures are either backed by supporters of President Trump or are responses to demonstrations against him and his policies.

In case this isn't obvious, First Amendment rights, including the right of Americans to peaceably assemble and petition the government for a redress of grievances, have not been repealed.The Washington Post had a related report last week, noting that sponsors of some of the GOP-backed proposal "say they're necessary to counter the actions of 'paid' or 'professional' protesters who set out to intimidate or disrupt, a common accusation that experts agree is largely overstated."In this case, "largely overstated" appears to be a polite euphemism for "made up out of whole cloth."The Post's report added that efforts like these have a deeply unfortunate lineage.

This is by no means the first time in American history that widespread protests have inspired a legislative backlash, says Douglas McAdam, a Stanford sociology professor who studies protest movements. "For instance, southern legislatures -- especially in the Deep South -- responded to the Montgomery Bus Boycott (and the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education) with dozens and dozens of new bills outlawing civil rights groups, limiting the rights of assembly, etc. all in an effort to make civil rights organizing more difficult," he said via email."Similarly," he added, "laws designed to limit or outlaw labor organizing or limit labor rights were common in the late 19th/early 20th century."

So far this year, none of the proposed anti-protest bills have become law, and a controversial measure considered in Arizona was killed this week in response to a public outcry.The year, however, is young. Watch this space.