Bertha Cooper

Think About It: Possible word choice error

“Possible word choice error” is the kindest report my computer provides me. It’s wrong most of the time. Then again, it could be more on top of things than I am.

Nowadays in an emerging environment of word re-definition, it worth thinking about it.

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.”

One could say semantics is driving our political divide fueled by a clever manipulation of language that pits Americans against Americans. Is it just harmless clever politics that we can ignore, or does it drive policy and law-making?

An example that raised the question for me is the number of states enacting laws that are seen by some as constraining public protest and/or dissuading people from participating in public protests; that is, people assembling to protest government or authority policies or action with which they strongly disagree.

Peaceable assembly, redefined

I have yet to meet someone who thinks lootings, bottle and rock throwing and bear spray are part of a peaceful protest. But I have met many who supported pedestrians blocking I-5 running through downtown Seattle in the late 1960s in protest of the Vietnam War.

Masses of people filled the freeway. I also remember the riots that occurred during the same time in poor areas of cities that resulted in enormous destruction. Both got attention and action.

Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests that began following the death of George Floyd inspired a different kind of attention and action. Instead of responding to the calls for justice, some states enacted laws to contain protests and/or make them crimes.

Reporting tells us that the concerns of states enacting the new laws were BLM protests 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 rioting that can in effect turn an assembly to protest 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 that bad actor is a block away or is a paid agitator.

The New York Times reports Indiana’s proposed law would prohibit anyone convicted of unlawful protesting from being employed by the state.

Minnesota’s proposed law would prohibit anyone convicted from receiving unemployment and housing benefits and from obtaining a student loan.

Florida created a new crime called “mob intimidation,” an offense committed when a group of protesters block roadways or deface monuments.

Texas riot law says that anyone who intentionally, knowingly or recklessly obstructs entryways, exits, sidewalks, aisles or elevators has committed an offense. Moreover, the Texas law says protesters must obey any reasonable order to leave the area.

Oklahoma included a provision that allows people to drive through crowds blocking roadways now legally described as an unlawful riot with impunity for any injuries or deaths resulting from the drive through. The driver must have felt threatened enough to flee. Fair enough — but why is it included in a law intending to criminalize protesters blocking roadways?

Shouldn’t there be an independent analysis for accountability given we have recent examples of people driving through protestors with intent to harm? Aren’t we having discussions on “qualified immunity” for police who protect and defend as part of their job? Can driving over innocent protesters be a “stand your ground” moment?

Civil disobedience a part of our history

The origins of these laws worry me in part because the governors of these states say their states have not had real incidents of riots, but they want to be sure they prevent them.

I am suspicious of intent when the governors cite the disruption that occurred around BLM protests on the West Coast but do not mention the destructive riot — or perhaps better called insurrection — that occurred on Jan. 6.

The origins plus threads that seem to suggest an authoritarian and controlling view of society worry me. Our constitution does call for the “ … right of the people to peaceably assemble.” Many locales like Washington D.C. require protest permits, which means a group must describe activity to take place in a certain area. The Jan. 6 rally for then President Trump had a permit to rally but not one to march on (and into) the Capitol.

People can peaceably assemble and still break the law. The mass protest gathering on I-5 in Seattle was civil disobedience, meaning it was a willful breaking of the law to bring attention to an issue. Civil connotes non-violent; nothing was destroyed except the convenience of freeway users. Many people have been arrested committing civil disobedience.

Thirty-four states, including ours, have anti-protest legislation introduced by Republicans, which in itself is telling given their authoritarian bent.

We must insist our legislators pay close attention to policies and laws that on the face of it seem to protect when, in fact, the protections already exist in another law form.

We need to be aware of what may be a disguised attempt to silence certain groups of citizens or place unreasonable constraints on assembling and/or promise serious punishment for civil disobedience.

Semantics and meaning matter. Legislation dressed up as protecting our safety may have the effect of excluding or harming someone else. It’s not a word choice error; it’s intentional.

Bertha Cooper, a featured columnist in the Sequim Gazette, spent her career years in health care administration, program development and consultation. Cooper and her husband have lived in Sequim more than 20 years. Reach her at columnists@sequimgazette.com.

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