WASHINGTON – The United States has started becoming a country of protesters once again, largely in response to the proposed policies and rhetoric of President Donald Trump. In response, citing the ostensible grounds of disorderliness and manipulation, Republican lawmakers have introduced bills to curb protesting in at least 17 states, with possibly more to come. I don’t approve, and if you don’t either I have a sorry message for you: This trend has been the bipartisan thrust of American policy since the 1970s.
For decades, we’ve restricted protests to protect safety and public order, but an important part of our democracy has eroded, namely the constitutional right to public assembly. I outline this history in one chapter of my new book, “The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream”; it is just one of many examples of how Americans are giving up their former dynamism for greater security, and to the possible long-run detriment of society.
These days, there exists a mini-industry of “protest planners,” comparable to wedding or convention planners. They will help you coordinate with the police, set up stages and sound systems in the approved manner, and clean up after the event. A major protest is a bureaucratized event, accompanied by professional teams of public relations and media management. The right to assembly has not been banished; it’s simply been limited, and made more difficult and expensive. At the margin that will limit the number and diversity of protests.
To understand how we got to this point, consider the chaos of public protests from the 1960s and early 1970s. The 1968-1975 period saw more instances of anti-government violence than any time since the American Civil War, and eventually state and local governments decided that they would regulate protests more closely.
Take the famed Selma civil rights marchers of 1965, when the protesters had obtained the legal right, through petition, to conduct an 84-km, five-day march down a highway. Of course, that blocked the highway and inconvenienced many motorists and truckers. America’s NIMBY mentality would most likely prevent a comparable event today.
Starting in the 1970s, the federal courts began to assert that public spaces are not automatically fair game for marches and demonstrations, and so local governments have sought to please the users of such facilities rather than marchers and protesters. For instance, during the 2004 Democratic National Convention, numerous would-be demonstrators ended up being confined to a “demonstration zone,” which one federal judge described as analogous to Piranesi’s etchings of a prison. The zone was ringed by barricades, fences and coiled razor wire.
Or take the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011, which was in large part defanged by the authorities of the city of New York. Rather than opting for outright confrontation, and perhaps some publicity victories for the protesters, authorities waited for the winter to shut down the encampment. The city police also surrounded the main protest site, Zuccotti Park, with their cars and set up a watchtower to keep a vigil. Barricades were placed to keep pedestrians away from the site, and passers-by were encouraged to “keep moving.”
Washington is in some ways more restrictive yet. The National Park Service controls about 25 percent of the city, including many of the focal spots. If a protest is expected to be of any note, the organizers will be required to meet with the Park Police and possibly the Capitol Police to plan it out, accompanied by lawyers in many cases. Further complications arise if the Secret Service is involved, and virtually any protest can be stifled or shut down altogether by invoking national security or terrorism fears.
Universities have changed a great deal, too. After the invasion of Cambodia and the shootings at Kent State University in May 1970, almost 4 million students demonstrated and 536 schools shut down, with protests erupting on more than 1,250 campuses. During that single month of May, there were 95 instances of bombings and arson on college campuses alone, and 30 ROTC buildings were burned or bombed. Today, a campus protest is very often about demands for safe spaces rather than political revolution. That shift makes for a much more pleasant and productive campus life, but there are lingering suspicions that millennial students do not (yet?) understand the urgency of the times they live in.
The excesses of the 1960s and ’70s are familiar, and the increasingly peaceful nature of American society has benefited virtually all of us. Still, I can’t help but wonder what has been lost. Surely there is a happy medium. Because American crime has come down, most likely the violence of protests would have fallen, too. Could we not have kept public demonstrations and protests more alive as a vital and nonbureaucratized tradition?
For a long time, most people ignored this issue, but I wonder if it won’t start to seem urgent once again.
Bloomberg columnist Tyler Cowen is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include “Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation.”
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