Culture Wars/Current Controversies

Rowdy protests aren’t violence — yet

By Samuel Goldman, The Week

What do you call it when enraged citizens surround a public official walking to his hotel? Or follow her into the bathroom brandishing video cameras? Or chant slogans outside his house? Or disrupt official proceedings and heckle speakers?

Your answer may have a lot to do with your opinion of the targets — and the party or principles they represent. If you like them, these actions are threats, harassment, and maybe even terrorism. If you don’t, they’re rare exceptions to “mostly” peaceful demonstrations, boisterous protests, or “what democracy looks like.”

As polarization increasingly defines social identity and policy preferences alike, it’s hard to find agreement on the boundary between protest and violence. If every disagreement is a potential threat, politics becomes impossible.

That’s the context for the controversy over a Monday announcement by the Justice Department that U.S. Attorneys and the FBI will establish a taskforce to assess threats against education authorities and teachers. The initiative was reported with little comment in mainstream outlets. On social media, however, conservatives denounced it as an effort to criminalize dissent regarding public health mandates, explicit sex ed, and racial equity programs.

The dispute rests partly on conservatives’ motivated misreading of the DOJ’s words. Attorney General Merrick Garland’s memo distinguishes between “spirited debates on public policy matters,” which are protected by the First Amendment, and “threats of violence or efforts to intimidate individuals based on their views,” which are not. Much of the online backlash ignored Garland’s distinction.


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