If you spend a lot of your waking hours on a couch in front of Fox News, the face of modern political protest is covered with a black scarf: the "antifa," with scary dark garb and a scarier-sounding name, always on the fringes of liberal demonstrations, always ready to engage in violent clashes in the name of fighting American fascism.
But venture out into the real world — specifically the bucolic rolling hills near the Susquehanna River in Lancaster County — and you might discover that the actual face of protest in strife-riven 2017 America looks more like Jon Telesco, a contractor married to a schoolteacher. He's a solid citizen of the rural community of Conestoga Township, where he was raised, a community about to be ripped apart for a large natural gas pipeline.
The looming arrival of the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline — with permit approvals doled out Thursday, construction in Conestoga and elsewhere could begin in a matter of weeks — has radicalized Telesco and hundreds of his neighbors who've formed Lancaster Against Pipelines. These are the salt of central Pennsylvania's rocky soil — farmers, doctors, construction workers, teachers — and they are doing things to protest the Williams Partners project that they couldn't have imagined doing a couple of years ago.
Praying with the nuns who've erected a makeshift chapel in the direct path of the pipeline. Walking en masse out of a meeting with Pennsylvania state regulators to protest their handling of the project. And now, training for stepped-up protests, even nonviolent civil disobedience, when the construction starts. "People plan to put their bodies between the bulldozers and the land," Telesco told me — but he worries that a recent crusade led largely by GOP lawmakers and elected officials to crack down on protesters will have a chilling effect.
Lawmakers in Harrisburg are now debating a bill that would have Pennsylvania protesters not just facing possible arrest — the Lancaster pipeline activists know and expect this — but also massive financial penalties for police overtime and other government costs, which could bankrupt demonstrators and their families.
"We have a group of people who've mostly never been active in their life — it scares them just to show up at a rally chanting, 'Farms, not fracking.' That for them is bold," Telesco said. Even though the Pennsylvania bill is currently stalled, Telesco and his allies worry the increasing trend of governments and police to seek to criminalize protest threatens their fundamental First Amendment rights.
The push in Harrisburg isn't that unusual. About 20 states — most led by Republican legislatures and governors — have in recent months been leading an unprecedented assault on citizens' right to protest — the quaint constitutional right of "petitioning government to redress grievances" be damned. Lawmakers are debating or enacting measures that would make it illegal to wear masks in public, while sharply increasingly fines and possible jail terms for tactics such as blocking highways or the path of infrastructure projects, which is often a fancy way of describing oil and natural gas pipelines, or even looking to ban "unlawful mass picketing," which essentially is just a protest march. (That last bill actually passed the Arkansas legislature — but the governor had enough sense to veto it.)
The tactics have alarmed not just the expected critics, like the American Civil Liberties Union — which has called the flood of antiprotest legislation an unconstitutional assault on the First Amendment — but even the United Nations, which has said the effort is "incompatible with international human rights law and would unduly restrict the possibility for individuals to freely exercise their rights to freedom of opinion and expression, and peaceful assembly."
Lawmakers are couching their campaign in predictable "law and order" terms even as they write legislation that would make a pipeline lobbyist orgasmic. But beyond the platitudes, many of the bills barely hide the sponsors' hostility toward protests in recent years by groups such as Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, and the growing resistance to President Trump.
There's been proposed legislation in a half-dozen states that would protect, to some extent, drivers who run over protesters with their cars — legislation that was debated in the days before Charlottesville, Va., peace marcher Heather Heyer was mowed down and killed by a vehicle driven by a right-wing activist.
The callous indifference to human life is stunning, yet that tone — to brand political dissent as something that needs to be met with draconian laws and an armed-to-the-teeth police force — has now been adopted by the White House. Just this week, with Trump's public approval hitting rock bottom, his administration reversed an Obama-era decision in order to again grant local police departments access to surplus military equipment like grenade launchers, bayonets, and armored personal carriers — just in time for the fall protest season. That's not all: Moves by Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions — signaling a halt to federal probes of police brutality and even giving a pardon to former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio for his racist policing practices — all send the same signal, that there's practically no abuse of human rights by law enforcement that is beyond the pale.
Here at home, State Sen. Scott Martin — sponsor of the bill that would charge protesters for police and other costs, who represents the pipeline route through Lancaster County — insisted he came up with the measure on his own after reading that North Dakota faced a $38 million bill after last year's Dakota Access pipeline protests, and with "zero" contact with pipeline lobbyists, disputing a recent report about PAC donations traced to lobbyists. He insisted to me that he respects the right of free speech but that violent and illegal acts by some protesters have "blurred lines" and that "sometimes the citizens lost in all the discussion are the taxpayers in the shadow who pick up the tab."
Martin's viewpoint will certainly get some political sympathy, especially from those whipped up in the current media frenzy over "antifa." That discussion is a rabbit hole that conservative activists want progressives to waste a lot of time going down, but I must say:
- It's nuts to claim a moral equivalence between white supremacist hate groups and people who oppose Hitler-flavored fascism.
- There's all sorts of antifa, ranging from those who valiantly protected pastors and rabbis in Charlottesville to knuckleheads who get a thrill from throwing a rock at Starbucks.
- Violence for any reason other than self-defense is wrong, and some of what this not-particularly-large antifa movement does is badly hurting the efforts by the much broader and larger mass movement of people seeking real social change, groups like Lancaster Against Pipelines. How is it hurtful? For one thing, it offers ammunition (no pun intended) for bad legislation like Martin's, as well as for a looming Trump-Sessions police state.
The reality is that it's hard not to notice that these lawmakers — who thought mass protest was wonderful back in the heyday of the Tea Party in 2009 and 2010 — started launching their efforts just as Trump was taking office and just as millions of Americans took part in the largest (and completely peaceful) protest action in U.S. history, the Women's March. The criminalization of protest will have the greatest impact on regular folks — the people who marched Jan. 21 and the rural landowners of Lancaster County — by persuading them to stay home and avoid "trouble." (Small bands of "professional protesters," meanwhile, will always show up — no matter what the law says.)
It's even more impossible not to notice that we live in an America where there is more stuff to protest than ever before. That includes a mad rush to enshrine fossil fuels with projects like the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline and Trump's coal-industry revival even as the death and devastation in East Texas remind us that climate change is threatening our lives and our livelihoods. We have a president who is so unfit for the job that he equivocates on neo-Nazis and goes to Texas to brag about his crowd size instead of meeting flood victims. We have a government that is violating the basic human rights of migrants, rolling back protections for LBGTQ citizens, and looking to widen the intolerable gap between rich and poor. It is a situation that screams out for people to take to the streets.