In early September, a small group of women dressed in white and red protested in Minsk. They risked detainment, imprisonment and even torture in Alexander Lukashenko’s Belarus simply for gathering publicly in the colors of the 1918 flag of the Belarusian People’s Republic, a symbol of the current pro-democracy opposition movement. They covered their faces (also in red and white) to protect their identities from surveillance.
During the past year more than 650 political prisoners have been confined in Belarus, among them IT specialists, artists, teachers, construction workers, doctors and lawyers. One drummer was sentenced to six years for playing at a rally. Many were charged under Article 23.34, a 1997 law on mass events that deprives Belarusians of their right to peacefully assemble and subjects violators to harsh penalties.
Belarus might seem far away from the United States geographically and politically; however, Americans are also facing repressive policies intended to curtail free expression and erode the right to protest.
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees the “right of the people to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances,” two distinctive rights. But since 2017, according to the International Center for Non-profit Law, 20 U.S. states have enacted 36 laws that restrict their residents’ rights to free assembly, with 52 new laws pending. Wisconsin’s SB 296/AB 279, a bill that could deter peaceful protesters from gathering by expanding the definition of “riot” and imposing severe penalties, is quickly moving through the state’s legislature.
Many new and pending state laws heighten penalties for possible public damage or blocking sidewalks or streets and variously redefine “riot” to include protests that have the potential or perception of property damage or violence when three or more people gather. Some states propose to criminalize gatherings that “cause annoyance” or “public disturbance,” vague terms that could be used selectively to inhibit large gatherings that temporarily disrupt the flow of traffic or generate noise.
No music, no chants, no drumming, no revelry. Dissent, these new laws suggest, must happen quietly, far away from symbolic spaces, and without drawing much attention to itself. As a theater historian who writes about performances of dissent and who has attended many peaceful protests, I’ve seen how the chanting and music and symbolic, embodied action enlivens a group, builds social cohesion and adds momentum to enact change peacefully.
Several states have proposed laws that would eliminate liability for motorists who injure or even kill protesters. West Virginia’s HB4618, enacted in 2018, requires any bystander to help disperse an unlawful assembly, or he or she “shall be deemed a rioter.” The law also allows authorities to use “any means necessary” to disperse any event deemed “unlawful” — and given the expanding definitions, that could mean almost any gathering.
These new laws, which center on the potential for violence or damage — rather than actual acts of violence or damage — are intended to deter would-be assemblers with the threat of large fines, imprisonment or being run over by a raging motorist. Along with state laws that suppress voting rights or restrict a person’s right to reproductive choice, these laws infringe on civil liberties and undermine our democracy largely through intimidation and fear.
Some actions of public dissent are rightfully named “insurrections” or “riots,” as they are intended to promote violence or destruction and, in those cases, laws must protect public safety. It’s dangerous, though, to frame all public displays of dissent as rioting and to use the law to repress public expression. Sometimes peacefully planned events turn aggressive through provocation, but to preemptively determine this or hold event coordinators and funders liable will undermine our freedoms of expression and assembly.
When such measures are taken on foreign soil, U.S. representatives are more ready to recognize them for the attacks on democracy they are. The Federal “Belarusian Democracy, Human Rights, and Sovereignty Act of 2020″ condemns the repression under Lukashenko and was co-sponsored by 11 U.S. House Democrats and four Republicans and signed into Federal law last December.
The same week that the women bravely protested in Minsk, a group of teens in Austin, Texas, released a dance filmed at the Texas State Capitol in protest of SB 8, which restricts nearly all abortions. We can support their right to express dissent by supporting lawmakers who defend Constitutional rights and exposing the growing number of Republican lawmakers who propose to slowly erode our freedoms. Even as we work to promote democracy and civil liberties abroad, we must continue to fight — to dance, to drum, to sing — to ensure a lively civil society and active public sphere here at home.
With each new restrictive law, we are closer to becoming a country where we can no longer march to the beat of a different drum.
Valleri Robinson is an associate professor of theater at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. ©2021 Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.