The Washington, D.C. city council has approved a bill that allows police to arrest activists who are non-violently demonstrating in front of someone’s home if they have not notified the police, if the protest takes place at night, or if they wear masks.
The Orwellian-sounding “Residential Tranquility Act” had been an on-going effort by Ward 3 Councilwoman Mary Cheh. Activists with Defending Animal Rights Today and Tomorrow had been protesting in Dupont Circle to pressure Goldman Sachs executive Michael Paese as part of the campaign against the animal testing lab Huntingdon Life Sciences.
Dupont residents had said they felt “terrorized” by the protests. However, the protesters weren’t breaking the law. They were within their rights. Or, as Cheh told the Examiner, they “beat the system.” The new law was passed to criminalize their First Amendment activity.
Home protests and wearing masks at protests are both controversial, but should they be outlawed?
The news coverage of this has been incredibly superficial. Mask-wearing protesters are depicted as terrorists. But the press has ignored the fact that the reason many activists wear masks is precisely because of these draconian crackdowns on protests. [For more on this, see "5 Reasons for Activists to Cover Their Faces at Protests."]
And home protests may make people uncomfortable, but that’s the point. Protests are supposed to make people uncomfortable. Otherwise, it’s ineffective. The local ACLU office wrote an excellent letter of opposition elaborating on this. If these activists are committing crimes, the ACLU said, the police can arrest them. If not, don’t restrict their First Amendment rights just because you don’t agree with their issue or you don’t like them in your neighborhood.
In some ways, Mary Cheh is right. These activists are “beating the system.” The system allows free speech up to the point it is effective. The fact that these protesters are making executives uncomfortable, and the police have largely been unable to stop them, is truly what makes them a threat.