This article is from the March 2017 issue of The Lookout newspaper. The Lookout is a social justice street newspaper published by the Mercy Junction Justice and Peace Center. It is available throughout Chattanooga from distributors who are, who have been or who are at risk of experiencing homelessness. A suggested donation of $1 per copy stays with the distributor. You can also pick up a copy at the Mercy Junction Justice and Peace Center, 1918 Union Ave., Chattanooga TN 37404, or you can get a year’s subscription to the monthly newspaper for $24 by emailing email@example.com.
By Beth Foster
Mercy Junction Justice and Peace Center Director
On March 10, Katie Cowley and others marched along the sidewalks of Chattanooga as part of an action to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Cowley is a seasoned activist and what she saw on Friday evening was something she hadn’t seen before in Chattanooga.
At two bars the march happened to pass, angry Trump supporters came out to yell at the protesters. Cowley said it really got scary for a few minutes. One of the men got right behind her friend, a native woman, and was yelling into her ear.
As scary as it was, as emboldened as those men felt that evening, Cowley fears how their behavior might have escalated if two anti-protest bills currently being considered in the Tennessee General Assembly were to pass.
House Bill 668/Senate Bill 944 provides civil immunity for the driver of an automobile who injures a protester who is blocking traffic in a public right-of-way if the driver was exercising due care.
House Bill 1051/Senate Bill 902 imposes a fine of $200 for violations of the offense of obstructing public highways and streets where the obstruction restricts emergency vehicle access. This quadruples the current fine for obstructing a highway or street, and many feel it is aimed at activists who have used the blocking of highways as a protest tactic.
“The bill is an attempt by the state to force protesters out of the streets,” Asher Larson, a Chattanooga activist, said. “The street is a very important space, because its a shared space. Streets are used for traveling, but also for wandering, sleeping, performing, panhandling, drinking and protesting. While the advocates of the bill might say its a way to protect drivers, it feels more like a threat to protesters.”
The Tennessee legislation is part of a nation trend with Republican legislators in 18 states introducing bills that attempt to criminalize protest or punish those involved in protest in one way or another.
Larson, who has blocked traffic before as part of the Black Lives Matter movement, says blocking streets is a good tactic because it throws a wrench in the normal working of a city and is impossible to ignore.
“It’s the right of the people to take the street,” Larson said. “It’s a communal space, and should fall under the First Amendment, and those rights are far more important than making it to work on time.”
Eva Watler, a Nashville activist, says she fears these laws will make people afraid to come out to protests because they know the law and the police are not on their side.
“Democracy cannot function without dissent,” Watler said. “This law is harmful to our democracy. I think the real purpose is to put the people on notice. The message is that our voice doesn’t matter and we will be silenced one way or another.”
Watler says she has felt like she could be in danger before when at protest and “these bills will give a mandate to violent people to do harm. I will not be deterred, even if these bills pass. Now, more than ever, it’s important that we stick together and put our feet to the street. I think it’s important that protesters receive training in self defense. The more prepared we are, the safer we are.
Damien Crisp, a Chattanooga activist who was involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement, echoes the sentiments of Larson and Watler.
“The most effective protest intervenes in the flow of daily life,” Crisp said. “Instead of passively taking the sidewalks, ignored as society goes by, we take the streets and make our voices heard. This is primary for a healthy democracy to elevate the concerns of the people. The real purpose of this bill is to silence the people as a corporate oligarchy continues to dismantle what’s left of an imperfect democracy and turn it into a totalitarian police state — they hope.”
Crisp remembers leaving a protest at a mall in suburban St. Louis when an SUV sped toward a group of activists and almost hit one of them.
“Police saw it and laughed it off,” he said.