The thinking is somewhat convoluted, but the governor of Oklahoma has just signed into law a bill that gives immunity to anyone who drives through protesters and injures or kills someone if the driver feels he or she is “fleeing from a riot” and the injuries or deaths are “unintentional.”
Similar legal efforts have also been created in Florida and Iowa.
Talk about an open season on human beings. We have reached that stage of deterioration of civil rights and human rights in the U.S. Oklahoma is not the only state to adopt such a law. There are others and, like the right-to-work-for-less laws, they’re catching on, mostly in red states, but also in states that had been liberal and friendly to trade unions and their picketing and rallying over union issues.
Over the past two or three decades, the decline of unions has seen a decline of strikes and picketing over traditional union issues. As most of us know, in the past several years, however, there has been an increase in rallies and picketing over the issues of police brutality and the killing by police of unarmed black citizens, men, boys, and women. The new surge of demonstrations has been led principally by Black Lives Matter, an organization that the right has tried to paint as violent, even to the point at which some right-wing politicians have called BLM a terrorist organization. Overwhelmingly, the BLM protests have been peaceful and, as is usually the case, the press covers them more closely when there are disturbances that have turned violent and there has been some property damage.
Oklahoma is simply following the lead of a few other states, but many states have begun to pass laws that will make it harder to exercise First Amendment rights, by assembling, speaking, picketing, marching, or joining with fellow citizens to petition the government and other authorities with their grievances. Slowly, but surely, individual rights are being squeezed out of public life, bill by bill, law by law, and attitude by attitude. It’s being done by a consortium of powers that should be protecting the rights of citizens, through Congress, state legislatures, the courts, and the press. Generally, these entities are protecting those who already hold most of the power.
For trade unionists, this is an old story. In mid-20th Century, often contracts did not have grievance procedures and grievances were solved by mass picketing at the gates by the workers until the grievance was solved. Then, they entered the factory and went to work. Grievances were mostly solved post haste or the work of the day didn’t get done. Mass picketing also was used in organizing, getting to a first contract, and settling contracts during negotiations. In other words, very effective.
That was too much worker power for Corporate America and its minions in Congress and the various state legislatures. Something had to be done to curb that power, so laws began to be passed to do that. A decade-long campaign resulted in curbing worker power and, by the late 1940s, mass picketing was pretty much outlawed.
Ahmed A. White of the University of Colorado Law School, writing in the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review in 2014: “Thereafter, it ceased to serve as an effective means of labor protest. Although overlooked by labor scholars and legal historians, this successful crusade against mass picketing was a crucial event in American legal and social history. For it not only anchored a broad-ranging attack on labor rights that culminated in the 1947 enactment of the Taft-Hartley Act; it also disarmed the labor movement, leaving unions and workers unable to consolidate the rights they seized in the 1930s and 1940s and impotent against renewed attacks on labor rights that began to unfold in the 1970s and that have left the labor movement shattered.”
President Harry Truman rightly called the Taft-Hartley Act the “slave-labor bill,” because it took so many rights away from workers and their unions. He vetoed it, but Congress overrode his veto and it became law. Effectively, it destroyed any semblance of solidarity among workers across the country, by making so many features of worker solidarity illegal. That slave-labor act stands today and has served as the foundation of a series of laws and precedents that eliminate the basic rights of workers to rebuild the union movement and uplift the working class. Corporate America and the rich have achieved their goal of neutering the working class as an integral part of a democratic nation. Although there are signs of a renewed interest in the idea of “union” or solidarity, and workers are rising up in various parts of the economy, they are forced to make their economic and social gains piecemeal. The piece that is missing is the vision of worker solidarity that encompasses all workers in all industries, which comes from a strong and progressive union movement.
The oppression of workers and their unions that has been accomplished over the past century is what is happening now to the basic civil rights of Americans everywhere. The charge that Black Lives Matter is a “terrorist” organization is just a part of the effort to demonize those fighting for equity and justice in what is essentially an unjust polity. It is driven by racism, xenophobia, and lust to maintain power over much of the national life. We are seeing the beginning of sets of laws that will restrict public demonstrations, rallies, picketing, and all of the ways that aggrieved people can make their grievances known to their government and others in power. An attempt is being made to reduce the rights under the First Amendment to a simple concept: “Out of sight, out of mind.”
There is a vast array of efforts to muffle First Amendment rights, along with some other rights that are supposedly enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. Not only are the laws such as Oklahoma’s meant to make potential demonstrators fearful of expression in large numbers, but there are efforts underway on university campuses to curb free speech by making it a serious offense to criticize Israel’s treatment of Palestinians or support the BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) movement to stop the oppression of Palestinians. The latter is but one way that civil and First Amendment rights are being dismantled.
The danger of Oklahoma’s new law is that the crux of the law rests in the “intent” or “fear” of the driver of the vehicle that injures or kills demonstrators, and that is one of those indecipherables that a jury would have to decipher. As in the case of the murder of George Floyd, even an attorney general of color admitted that it was not possible to charge the cop with a hate crime. Historically, in cases like these, the side with the power wins. How the Floyd case ended is an anomaly. Those struggling for human and civil rights are hoping that the case will be a turning point…toward justice.
Many of the laws suppressing civil and human rights should eventually end up in court, but proving their unconstitutionality lies with the side which has little power and even less money to pursue legal remedies. Some of the cases will take years to resolve and during that time, the lives and safety of legal and constitutional demonstrators will be at risk. There will always be the question of what constitutes a public street and whether citizens have a right to be on them at all, at any time.
The lessons of the union movement need to be studied in this time because this modern civil rights and human rights movement is at a similar stage that unions were at in the late 1940s when the authorities were on a legal rampage to stamp out the rights of workers to act in solidarity with one another. In that, they have been successful and the struggle of workers to unionize freely continues. That need not, and should not, happen to those struggling for rights of black, brown, and other people of color, who will keep protesting, organizing, and fighting bad laws wherever they appear.
BlackCommentator.com Columnist, John Funiciello, is a former newspaper reporter and labor organizer, who lives in the Mohawk Valley of New York State. In addition to labor work, he is organizing family farmers as they struggle to stay on the land under enormous pressure from factory food producers and land developers. Contact Mr. Funiciello and BC.