Olympia, WA — Rather than working to abolish some of the thousands of illogical, irrational laws in the United States criminalizing ordinary, mundane behavior, one legislator dreamed up yet another means to give us a criminal record — “economic terrorism.”
Washington State Senator Doug Ericksen’s new bill, however, only hazily concerns economics. Instead, the proposed legislation — dressed in the sheep’s clothing of criminalizing rioting — constitutes a predatory attack on First Amendment-protected activity: protests.
“Ericksen has prepared a bill for next year’s legislative session that would create a new crime of economic terrorism,” the senator’s website states. “The measure would allow felony prosecution of those who intentionally break the law in an attempt to intimidate or coerce private citizens or the government by obstructing economic activity.”
Ericksen is apparently sick to death of protests — peaceful or otherwise — and hopes to target activists who occasionally disrupt the flow of commerce or block traffic. Such demonstrations — whatever ire they provoke from those who would rather maintain a routine of sleep, work, eat, repeat — often represent the sole outlet for people who feel their grievances have fallen on lawmakers’ deaf ears.
In the First Amendment to the Constitution, that’s the “right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
As Fox News pointed out when introducing Ericksen for an interview recently, looting, rioting, property destruction, and the like — what the bill appears superficially to target — are already illegal. Whether that makes the soon-to-be-proposed legislation redundant or belies its true and underlying intent to make Constitutionally-protected protest illegal appears to be an alarmingly open question.
“The first thing to be clear about, is that you have the right to protest,” he told the hosts on Fox News, “and you can protest Mr. Trump all you want, you can misspell fascism on a sign and carry it around the streets. That’s not what we’re goin’ after.
“What we’re targeting are the people who take it to the next level — you have a right to protest, you do not have a right to do harm, to people or to personal property. And this is intended to protect the citizens of my state and people around the country from those that get out of control, or from the organizers of these protests that get out of control.”
However, Ericksen has quite the narrow definition for ‘acceptable’ forms of protest, according to his site, the “measure would create a class C felony when protests aimed at causing economic disruption jeopardize human life and property. It would not apply in cases of lawful and protected activities, such as strikes and picketing.”
In other words, he has no problem with people walking off the job and marching with signs to, for instance, force employers into bargaining for better wages — but that’s about it — and no less ironically so, considering strikes and picketing inflict economic damage from lost labor.
“A lot of people misunderstand [this bill], they think it’s an assault on the right to protest, which it’s not,” Ericksen continued. “It’s basically just saying, ‘You cannot harm other people.’ And in Washington State, we’re seeing organized groups forming to abuse the protest system against our energy infrastructure; and that’s really where this bill started from.”
That last point, the impetus for crafting legislation to criminalize constitutionally-protected behavior, markedly demonstrates the potential for the law to be applied with too broad a brush.
For instance, should legislators in North Dakota decide to draft a copycat measure, every water protector from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and each supporter hoping to halt construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline could be considered an ‘economic terrorist’ — despite the pipeline’s intended transportation of crude for export.
Indeed that’s the danger inherent in vaguely but vociferously worded legislation — the tangible potential it will be misinterpreted, or perhaps interpreted correctly, and used against those who otherwise follow prohibitions on violence and property destruction in protesting.
Similarly poorly thought out legislation has already been tested in Oklahoma — with predictably astonishing results.
Environmental activists Moriah Stephenson and Stefan Warner were arrested and charged with committing a “terrorism hoax” after unfurling a glitter-laden banner at the Oklahoma City headquarters of fracking giant, Devon Energy. Neither perpetrated any violence. Neither vandalized or destroyed property. Neither harmed anyone nor anything.
But Stephenson and Warner each initially faced a maximum penalty of ten years in prison, in the first test of the nascent state law. Eventually, the “terrorism hoax” charges were downgraded to disorderly conduct, and ultimately dismissed — but what came to be called ‘glittergate’ stretched the bounds of interpretation of law, particularly in regard to terrorism, and present a prime example for why Ericksen’s legislation is not just unnecessary, it’s dangerously chilling for constitutional rights.
As TechDirt aptly pointed out, the state senator has not provided information indicating who, precisely, would determine when protesting crosses the line into “economic terrorism,” and that could have indescribably terrible results.
“Great. Let’s just leave that in the hands of law enforcement, which has always been wonderful when allowed to exercise its own discretion,” Tim Cushing snarkily wrote for TechDirt. “Give them a ‘blue lives matter’ law and they’ll throw the book at every drunken arrestee who calls them names. Give them the latitude to decide when picketing crosses into ‘economic terrorism,’ and I’m sure they’ll make the right call.”
Indeed, because Ericksen’s bill — conceived as an indignant response to anti-Trump protests in Washington and around the country — is so loosely structured and ambiguous, it’s likely not to pass at all, no matter the support he claims to have received.
“Would it apply to a Trump protest? If they take it too far, it would apply to ‘em,” Ericksen told Fox News.
A statement from the American Civil Liberties Union Communications Director Doug Hong, cited by Fox News, said, “We’re already concerned that some of its loose terms appear to be targeting civil disobedience as ‘terrorism.’ That’s the kind of excessive approach to peaceful protest that our country and state do not need.”
Ericksen’s response to that statement prove even he fails to comprehend the legislation he’s proposing. In fact, the example the senator highlighted as protected under the “economic terrorism” bill — lunch counter protests of the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s — disrupted economic activity by design. Which is why those protests greatly contributed to a favorable outcome — African Americans disrupted businesses, hitting owners in their wallets, to affect serious reform.
Hopefully, cooler heads will prevail in the Washington State Legislature when the bill is formally proposed — and lawmakers will have the foresight to see the exceedingly negative repercussions of criminalizing protest.