Senator Doug Ericksen, (R, Ferndale) has submitted an “economic disruption” bill in the 2017 Washington State legislative session that would threaten mandatory jail time for demonstrators and supporters of any civil disobedience that interferes with business. Blocking a street or the entrance to a business would qualify if it interferes with “commerce.” The minimum mandatory additional sentence would be sixty days in jail for a misdemeanor, e.g. trespassing. No judicial discretion.
While we’d like to think that simply voting and an occasional call to our representatives would result in popular opinion becoming public policy, it has never worked that way. America’s proudest accomplishments have been achieved by people going to the streets and often civil disobedience is involved. Among these accomplishments are: women’s suffrage, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, ending the war in Vietnam, gay rights, etc. Demonstrations in the streets and civil disobedience are often the only effective way to move legislation.
There is nothing innocent or naively well intended about Senator Don Ericksen’s bill. There are already adequate laws against violence and destruction. This bill is an effort to intimidate people, stifle speech and further suppress Democracy. Period. It should come as no surprise that such a bill would be submitted by the party that actively opposed virtually all of the above mentioned accomplishments and is currently working to dismantle them.
The corrupting effects of big money, widespread gerrymandering, and voter suppression have already dramatically reduced our Democracy’s effectiveness at reflecting public opinion. Adding the potential of mandatory jail time for participating in or even for funding a protest would leave rank and file Americans utterly voiceless. “We are not just going after the people who commit these acts of terrorism,” Ericksen said. “We are going after the people who fund them. Wealthy donors should not feel safe in disrupting middle class jobs.” (Q13 Fox News) (16 Nov. 2016). What about people who just happen to have given a few bucks to an organization that falls victim to this law? Will they risk a jail time for giving to a political action group? What country is this?
Given the political make-up of the Washington State legislature at present it seems unlikely that this bill will be passed. But to dismiss it as a mere protest bill, as did the Everett Herald’s editorial staff on November 18, 2016, would be a mistake. There are 31 states in which Republicans dominate all three branches of government. And in those states such a bill might well pass. It is reasonable to assume that this bill will turn up in those states because it so closely resembles the “Environmental Terrorism” bill that was tendered in Washington State several years ago and which originated from the American Legislative Exchange Council. If a large number of states pass laws that hang mandatory jail time over the heads of protesters this will severely impact the people’s ability to mount effective nationwide protests. And a financial supporter in any state could be prosecuted because an organization they support conducted civil disobedience in a state that has passed a similar law. Would you make a contribution to Greenpeace under those circumstances?
Supporters of this bill will protest, ironically, that they fully support the right of people to legally protest. But the effect of this legislation is clearly intended to chill public speech of the sort that has historically been the cause of this country’s most admirable political accomplishments. We cannot let that happen.