If you were on your way to work in Minneapolis last Thursday, or perhaps rushing to get to a doctor’s appointment, or maybe driving an emergency vehicle en route to provide life-saving assistance, you may have found your route blocked by a group of over 150 protestors who shut down Interstate 35W in Minneapolis. Their marching obstruction was punctuated by “die-ins” where participants lay on the ground chanting “I can’t breath” in reference to the last words uttered by Eric Garner in a now infamous confrontation with police in New York. The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports:
The high-profile rally had echoes of protests that have sprouted up in other cities around the country, often fueled by crowds enraged by what they say is unfair and often lethal treatment of minorities.
The protest was unlawful. Demonstrators obtained no permit. Even so, police responding to the scene were accommodating. “Minneapolis Police and Minnesota State Patrol blocked traffic and escorted the marchers for about three miles down the highway,” the local NBC affiliate reported. No arrests were made.
According to one law enforcement expert cited, such restraint in the face of unlawful protest is appropriate:
“I first learned about demonstrations and how to handle them in 1968,” commented Tony Bouza, one-time Bronx, New York Police Commander and former Minneapolis Police Chief…
“We went in there with nightsticks and tear gas and arrested them and beat them up and it was a terrible, tragic mistake,” said Bouza.
By contrast, officers and troopers around Thursday’s protest guarded and protected the protesters, even when they occasionally staged “die-ins”, laying down on the pavement. A protest organizer used a bull horn to inform the marchers and police of the movements of the marchers.
“You have to bend the law and let us face it,” said Bouza. “The mindless enforcement of the law is silly…the reality is: you have a lot of discretion and you need to use it. You need to conflict manage, understand it, negotiate and deal with it very patiently.”
Bouza went on to refer to detractors who question why the law was not enforced as “mindless.”
Not to be outdone by a law enforcement professional who publicly advocates bending the law, activists on social media minimized the violation of travelers’ rights, claiming that the protestors’ cause justified the “inconvenience.” One commenter summed up his view thus:
1) No one has the right to stand on, or travel through, the spot where someone else is standing. Think a long line at the grocery store, a traffic jam or [the] 35W [protest] this week.
2) The specific route and speed of your trip is not an inherent human right.
3) There are political ends that are worth fighting for even if it produces a small inconvenience in life such as, I don’t know, years of police killing unarmed civilians with impunity.
This is, to a lesser degree, the same argument offered in attempt to legitimize the looting and arson which has devastated Ferguson, Missouri. The police are out of control, the argument goes, so it’s okay to steal and destroy your neighbor’s property.
Regardless of the degree, whether we’re talking about Ferguson or staging a “die-in” on an interstate, there is nothing about being victimized which grants an entitlement to victimize others. Setting aside the question of whether particular protestors actually languish under some kind of insufferable oppression, even in the worst case scenario where their every claim proves true, they have no right whatsoever to intrude upon others – whether it’s looting, arson, or detaining innocent people with a mob.
It’s inaccurate to dismiss the I-35 protest as an “inconvenience” akin to a long line at the grocery store. Standing in line at a point of sale is something people do voluntarily with the understanding that the first to arrive is the first to be served, and being beat to the register takes nothing from you which you were owed. By contrast, obstructing traffic with unlawful protest is a particular form of violence. It’s an initiation of force which has more in common with hostage-taking than grocery-shopping. As such, it properly ought to result in arrests and prosecutions.
When Bouza recalls nightsticks and tear gas, he implies that the only alternative to tolerating unlawful protest is “beating them up.” But physical confrontation need not occur if lawbreakers comply with lawful orders and cease violating the rights of others. You don’t get to complain about violence which you initiated by trespassing upon your neighbor.