Can the government rein in disruption and riots hiding under the guise of "protests?"

The old school idea of “protesting” which I grew up with has changed a lot in the 21st century. This new school of protesters focuses on “disruption” as the vehicle for their efforts as opposed to the old school, quaint concept of simply marching on sidewalks, in parks or designated areas with signs and songs. We saw that with some of the early Black Lives Matter intrusions such as the Black Brunch in New York City back in 2015. Simply shutting down a few businesses wasn’t enough for most of them, so another popular tactic developed in the form of breaking down fences near interstates and shutting down highways for hours on end. Of course, once the damage begins it’s a short jump from there to smashing windows, setting fires and flipping over police cars. At some point along that trail we crossed the line from protesting to rioting, and while we can debate the exact moment when it happened, we’re there now.

So what can we do about it? State governments in a number of locations are now looking at changing the laws so that the violence and intentional disruption can be curbed. Of course, as long as they’re calling the riot a “protest” this will remain controversial. (WaPo)

The protests of 2016, against pipelines and police shootings and a presidential candidate, have sparked lawmakers in eight states to consider bills boosting penalties for unlawful demonstrations. They include one that would protect drivers who “unintentionally” run over activists blocking roads and another aimed at forcing protesters to pay up to three times the costs of any damage they caused.

In Washington state, a lawmaker termed some protests “economic terrorism” and introduced a bill that would permit judges to tack on an additional year in jail to a sentence if the protester was “attempting to or causing an economic disruption.”

There are more on the list. One Indiana bill would authorize police encountering an intentional blockage of traffic to clear the road “by any means necessary.” Minnesota is looking at a law which would make “participating or being present at an unlawful assembly” punishable by having to pay for the increased law enforcement costs incurred to handle the riot. Iowa wants to change the charge of blocking an interstate from a misdemeanor to a felony punishable by up to five years in jail.

I’ll be the first to admit that some of the wording included in the description of the laws being considered is, frankly, horrifying. By any means necessary? An unlawful assembly? For someone who grew up in an era of protests against “the man” such phrases seem antithetical to the entire idea of free speech. But it’s no longer just speech. These are not efforts to change minds through the expression of dissenting opinions. They are far too often found to be well funded, orchestrated instances of chaos. From the most extreme cases of burning and looting such as we just saw in Berkeley to the BLM marchers closing down highways and airports, this is nothing short of domestic terrorism. And law enforcement has to be able to respond in a fashion appropriate to the nature of the threat.

Don’t bother us with your protests about “free speech” in these cases. I want you to have free speech. I want you to exercise it by speaking your mind, sometimes loudly and even rudely. But nothing in the First Amendment suggests that you can cause injury and property damage or even block the peaceful travel of your fellow citizens as part of that speech. At that point you are no longer expressing an opinion. You’re breaking the law in a decidedly non-peaceful way and you deserve to be punished for it.

With that said, actually running down the protesters is still a bit much.