Think about it: possible word choice error
“Possible word choice error” is the friendliest report my computer gives me. This is wrong most of the time. Then again, it could be more above things than me.
Nowadays, in an emerging environment of redefinition of words, it is worth thinking about.
People spend careers studying semantics, defined as “… the branch of linguistics that deals with the study of meaning, changes in meaning, and the principles that govern the relationship between sentences or words and their meanings.”
You could say that semantics is the engine of our political division fueled by an intelligent manipulation of language that pits Americans against Americans. Are these just harmless smart policies that we can ignore, or does it lead to the development of policies and laws?
An example that has raised the question for me is the number of states passing laws that some see as constraining public protests and / or deterring people from participating in public protests; that is, people who come together to protest against the policies or actions of the government or authority with which they strongly disagree.
Peaceful blend, redefined
I have yet to meet anyone who thinks that the looting, the throwing of bottles and stones and the spray are part of a peaceful protest. But I did meet many who were supporting pedestrians blocking I-5 running through downtown Seattle in the late 1960s to protest the Vietnam War.
Masses of people filled the highway. I also remember the riots that occurred at the same time in the poor areas of the cities and which resulted in enormous destruction. Both drew attention and action.
The Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests that began after George Floyd’s death inspired a different kind of attention and action. Instead of responding to calls for justice, some states have enacted laws to contain protests and / or make them crimes.
Reports tell us that the concerns of states passing the new laws were protests against the BLM that turned violent – or at least had a violent component that resulted in the destruction of property and, in some cases, injuries to people.
These proposed or new laws include a redefinition of riots or riots that can actually turn a protest assembly into a riot. An innocent protester can be arrested for “participating in a riot” if a bad actor starts throwing things or breaking windows. It doesn’t matter if the bad actor is a block away or a paid agitator.
the New York Times reports that Indiana’s proposed law would prohibit anyone found guilty of illegal protests from being employed by the state.
Minnesota’s proposed law would prohibit anyone convicted from receiving unemployment and housing benefits and obtaining a student loan.
Florida has created a new crime called “mob intimidation,” an offense committed when a group of protesters block roads or damage monuments.
Texas riot law says that anyone who intentionally, knowingly or recklessly obstructs entrances, exits, sidewalks, aisles or elevators has committed an offense. Additionally, Texas law states that protesters must obey any reasonable order to leave the area.
Oklahoma included a provision that allows people to walk through crowds blocking roads now legally described as an illegal riot with impunity for any injury or death resulting from the driveway. The driver must have felt threatened enough to flee. Fair enough – but why is it included in a law to criminalize protesters blocking roads?
Shouldn’t there be an independent analysis of accountability given that we have recent examples of people walking through protesters with intent to harm? Don’t we have discussions on “qualified immunity” for police officers who protect and defend in the course of their work? Can driving over innocent protestors be a “stand your ground” moment?
Civil disobedience is part of our history
The origins of these laws concern me in part because the governors of these states say their states have not had real riot incidents, but they want to be sure they are preventing them.
I am suspicious of intent when Governors cite the disruption that has occurred around the BLM protests on the West Coast, but do not mention the destructive riot – or perhaps better called insurgency – that has taken place. January 6th.
The origins and the threads that seem to suggest an authoritarian and dominant view of society worry me. Our constitution calls for “… the right of the people to assemble peacefully”. Many places like Washington DC require protest permits, which means that a group must describe the activity taking place in a certain area. The Jan. 6 rally for then-President Trump had a rally permit, but not one to march on (and into) the Capitol.
People can assemble peacefully and still break the law. The mass protest rally on I-5 in Seattle was civil disobedience, meaning it was a willful violation of the law to bring attention to an issue. Civilian means nonviolent; nothing was destroyed except the convenience of highway users. Many people have been arrested for civil disobedience.
Thirty-four states, including ours, have anti-protest legislation introduced by Republicans, which in itself is telling given their authoritarian leanings.
We must insist that our legislators pay close attention to policies and laws that at first glance appear to protect when in fact the protections already exist in some other form of law.
We need to be aware of what may be a disguised attempt to silence certain groups of citizens or to impose unreasonable constraints on the meeting and / or to promise serious punishment for civil disobedience.
Semantics and meaning matter. Legislation disguised as protecting our security can have the effect of excluding or harming someone else. This is not a word choice error; it’s intentional.
Bertha Cooper, featured columnist for The Sequim Gazette, has spent her career years in healthcare administration, program development and consultation. Cooper and her husband have lived in Sequim for over 20 years. Contact her at [email protected]