Right to protest?

A black man is shot while assaulting a police officer.  People riot.

“Right to protest” people say.

Another is killed while resisting arrest over a tobacco tax violation.  People start blocking traffic and more riots.

“Right to protest” people say.

A man that many people do not like is elected President.  People riot, block traffic, assault supporters of that President.

“Right to protest” people say.

A gay conservative seeks to speak at a college campus.

More riots getting the college to rescind the invitation to speak.

“Right to protest” people say.

Well, here’s the problem:

There. is. no. right. to. protest.

I know, this is a surprise to many people, but it’s true.  There are a number of rights we have, but none of them are “to protest”.  They can be used for protest but simply “protesting” does not exist as a right separate from these other rights.  The closest to a right to protest is the right to petition government for redress of grievance.  You can tell government what you think it’s doing wrong and ask it to do something to fix the problem.

Instead of a right to protest you have rights to Free Speech, Free Press, and Peaceable Assembly.  You can use these rights to protest.  You can use them to say you think everything is fine. You can use them to say you think Rutabagas are better than Strawberries. (Weird, but “De gustibus non est disputandum.”)

You do not have the right to destroy (let alone steal) private or public property even if you call it protest.

You do not have the right to hinder people going about their lawful business even if you call it protest.

You most certainly do not have the right to assault people even if you call it protest.

“Protest” is not license for criminal behavior, not matter how strongly you feel about the thing your protesting.

Now, some people will bring up the idea of “civil disobedience”, of Gandhi’s “Salt March”, of Rosa Parks’ refusal to move to the back of the bus, of the Boston Tea Party.

But note the important factor in each of those, and other examples.  In each, the law they were breaking was one they themselves considered unjust.  The Sons of Liberty did not go burning their neighbors’ fields because they considered the tea tax, imposed on the colonies without the colonies having any representation in the taxing body (British Parliament) was unfair.  Their disobedience to the law was directed specifically to the taxed tea with an absolute minimum of other damage–indeed when they broke a lock on one of the ships to get access to the tea they later replaced it.

Similar with Gandhi’s Salt March.  It was considered unjust that the Indian people were forbidden from making their own salt, from the ocean waters on their own coast, without having a tax imposed by the British.  So they marched to the sea to make salt.

And Rosa Parks.  The law requiring certain citizens to move to the back of the bus in favor of others was unjust.  So she simply refused to move to the back.

The Boston Tea Partiers did dress up like Native Tribes in their protest but that fooled nobody.   Membership in the Sons of Liberty was pretty much an open secret.  And they were invoking either the British government backing down or retribution on their heads–either of which would underscore the unjustness, as they saw it, of the law they were violating in protest.

Gandhi’s marchers also knew they were subject to that law and that enforcement of it would highlight how unjust, as they saw it, it was.

Rosa Parks knew she was subject to arrest.  And she was arrested.

This is civil disobedience, direct and deliberate violation of unjust laws.  It can be a very courageous act since it invokes punishment for the violation specifically to show how unjust the law is.  And if you’re wrong about people rising in outrage against the law you believed was unjust, you still end up facing the punishment.

See the difference between that and seeking anonymity in a crowd, wearing masks, and breaking laws that have nothing to do with whatever the subject of the protest might be?  Such violation of the law does not show anything to be unjust.  It merely shows that the “protesters” are rabble, seeking only their own gain rather than serving any true cause whatever rhetoric they might spout.

The best such “protesters” can hope for is a general breakdown of rule of law in which chaos a few strong individuals might benefit at the cost of loss and blood for the masses.  At worst you get a government crackdown which does nothing to rally people to your side because your actions demonstrate that you deserve that crackdown.  In between are various levels of misery for various people that do nothing to further your high-sounding ideals.

Perhaps you hope for that breakdown of rule of law and, in the chaos to follow, you will come to the fore and take power.  However, consider, in such cases the people who start that kind of revolution rarely if ever are the ones in charge at the end.  The “idealists” who start the revolution are the first up against the wall, even if their side wins and the people seeking no more than their own personal power and wealth become the ones to rule.

Wither your high-sounding ideals then?


5 thoughts on “Right to protest?”

  1. One of the errors the Supreme Court made was deciding that burning the flag was “free speech”. Speech is using your mouth not a physical activity. Now protesters think that anything they do is fair game


    1. One can either include actions taken to communicate a message as speech(otherwise, would sign language count as speech?) or the ninth comes into play.

      The dividing line, really, is that there is no right to violate other people’s rights, not their property by breaking their windows or looting their stores, not their liberty by hindering their going about their lawful business, not their persons via assault, and certainly not their lives.

      There is, however, no right not to be offended. And that applies just as much to folk being offended by flag burning as it is to folk on the other side being offended by everything and anything.


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