The Right to Peaceful Assembly vs. the “Right” to Convenient Motoring

Demonstrations against police brutality spilled onto streets and highways in American cities this weekend, with protesters stopping traffic in Baton Rouge, Memphis, St. Paul, Los Angeles, and Oakland.

NPR reports 102 people were arrested in St. Paul and another 120 in Baton Rouge, including prominent Black Lives Matter organizer DeRay Mckesson, who was arrested while walking along Airline Highway, a large, divided surface street. Mckesson was charged with “obstruction of a highway” and released on Sunday, telling the Washington Post that the charges against him have not been dropped, however.

“Obstruction of a highway of commerce” is a crime in Louisiana, and the felony version is punishable by imprisonment “with or without hard labor, for not more than 15 years,” according to a New Orleans criminal defense firm (hat tip to Lloyd Alter for the info).

Mckesson said that demonstrators were not even obstructing the highway, which is consistent with footage of the protest from around the time of his arrest.

Meanwhile, in St. Paul, officers used the obstruction of I-94 as a pretext to teargas protesters:

Protesters also tried to take over highways in Atlanta and Greensboro, North Carolina, according to the Voice of Philadelphia, but did not succeed.

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley said she supports peaceful protests, according to Philly Voice, but that “I’d ask that we not put our fellow citizens or law enforcement at risk — which is exactly what attempting to block highways does.”

Apparently Haley was referring to the possibility that emergency responders could be delayed, a common justification when public gatherings on roads are broken up. Last year, a Massachusetts lawmaker suggested that protesters who block highways should be charged with attempted murder on these grounds. But the world keeps turning when highways come to a standstill for more common reasons, like traffic collisions.

The eagerness to arrest and aggressively disperse people protesting on highways seems inseparable from public officials’ identification with motorist entitlement — the presumption that drivers’ business must never be subordinated, and certainly not for a spontaneous public demonstration exercising First Amendment rights.

That attitude surfaced in ugly form on social media this weekend, with truckers and other motorists expressing the impulse to run over protesters. Even when drivers act on that urge, law enforcement may not hold them accountable, as we saw after a motorist drove into demonstrators at a 2014 Black Lives Matter protest in the Twin Cities.

The First Amendment guarantees “the right of the people peaceably to assemble,” but courts have limited the public’s right to assemble on streets and highways. Laws may require protesters to obtain a permit for street protests and impose “reasonable” restrictions on where and when these actions can happen. Cities and activist groups often contest what constitutes reasonable restrictions.

Sometimes law enforcement simply tries to rob demonstrators of their constitutional rights. During 2014 Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, legal advocates had to intervene to protect protesters’ right to demonstrate on the sidewalk. Police had insisted demonstrators keep walking instead of standing in place, using the charge of impeding sidewalk traffic as an excuse to arrest people.

Other times, when the sidewalk feels too constricting, you need a bigger platform and a better stage.

  • shande123

    Blocking a highway is intentionally holding people against their will. Traffic is not intentional. Someone could have a panic attack and drive through the people to escape.

  • shande123

    It is illegal for pedestrians to be walking on a freeway and is posted.
    Is holding up protest signs, linking arms and screaming dissent, violence, maybe a clue of intent? Protesters are intentionally holding people against their will. What if protesters held the doors shut in a public building in protest?

  • Mike Yancey

    “…But the world keeps turning when highways come to a standstill for more common reasons, like traffic collisions.”

    Regardless of how well constructed the argument was throughout the rest of the article, this has got to be the single worst analogy I have ever seen. First of all, that is like comparing someone falling off of a building to someone being pushed. There is such a thing as “intent” in the law. Secondly, in accidents, people are generally charged with something, eg. Texting and driving, negligence, drunken driving…you get the point. Someone gets (at the very least) a ticket. You can be charged with manslaughter, or even second-degree murder if the death-toll is high enough.So the idea of charging people who put themselves and others in serious danger is one that already exists, and helps to prevent avoidable death. What if you backed up traffic and caused someone to be rear-ended? What if a mother was in labor, or a car-born baby was being strangled by its own umbilical cord and required immediate attention. What if someone was bleeding out? (AND THAT UTTER CRAP ABOUT “IF YOU NEEDED TO GO TO THE HOSPITAL THAT BAD YOU WOULD HAVE AN AMBULANCE” DOESN”T CUT IT! SOMETIMES THERE ISN’T TIME, AND EVEN IF THERE HAD BEEN ONE, THE AMBULANCE WOULD BE STOPPED BY THE IDIOTS ON THE ROAD) Seriously, if you have time to block traffic, you have time to search for a job. I don’t understand people who justify this ridiculousness. Do you have right to protest? OF COURSE YOU DO!!! And there are hundreds of thousands of square miles throughout the US that you could do so without putting other people in serious danger. #BlackLivesMatterButFactsDon’t

  • William Snell

    Did you really write “but the world keeps turning when highways come to a standstill for more common reasons, like traffic collisions”? That is a whole new level of stupid. Let me see if I can relate you idiocy back to you. We shouldn’t get upset at people who purposefully disable ambulances, because sometimes they break down on their own. Try again.

  • Dan

    If the people stop emergency vehicles that should be a crime given the serious harm it could cause.

    If they simply delay motorists then its no more serious harm than a traffic jam so the intent vs unfortunate circumstances distinction is redundant. You’re balancing delaying and inconveniencing motorists against the right to peacefully assemble.

    If you’re balancing putting lives at risk by hindering ambulances then that’s a different story. All motorists need to make way as do the protesters.

  • Dan

    His point is simply that its not serious harm like say blocking an emergency vehicle getting through. Motorists need to allow the emergency vehicle to proceed irrespective of whether there’s a traffic jam or not and so do the protesters.

    But delaying and inconveniencing motorists.. that’s not serious harm, its arguably not even harm given that its such a common occurrence on motorways. It just sucks.

  • Andre

    Its a felony to block emergency vehicles

  • Andre

    You can’t block the pedestrians legally either. fucking morons everywhere on here. You have to let people by. Sidewalk or not. Unless you have acquired a permit to assemble and block roads sidewalks it is illegal to do so…It is not peaceful assembly otherwise.. is the same for parades gay pride marches cancer ect ect that way the city can help block certain areas off and create detours for traffic and pedestrians.. Fuck i hate ignorant people.

  • Andre

    You are a fucking moron. There is a big difference between a traffic accident and a bunch of oxygen wasting meat bags “intentionally” “Illegally” blocking the damn roads… Almost everywhere a Permit is required from the city to assemble and block roads off. Detours can then be made and traffic directed to them. Otherwise you are commiting a crime.

  • Andre

    And now they are getting arrested hahahah. Oh and ran over hahahaha. Oh and it seems the drivers are getting away with it more and more hahahaha

  • Andre

    Blacks have destroyed every neighborhood they have taken over. Plain and simple. Its not racism is fact… They commit what, over 40% of all known murders in this country and they are a minority. That’s absolutely ridiculous. My black and Mexican friends couldn’t agree more. Friends from Detroit LA and Arizona. They got jobs. They left because they were tired of the bullshit. Black lives matter. Yet they kill Eachother like they don’t matter. Like it’s a sport. Asian and Latino communities seem to do fine compared to… Think i like working my life away just to have some shitty trailer full of ramen. Id make more selling drugs. But i don’t… Part of life. Yours truly the normal broke working white guy.. go to the continent Africa. See how much blacks lives matter to blacks there.

  • Dan

    And rightly so! No one should ever have the right to do that.

  • @Andre – Are you a human being or a sentence generator loaded up with false and racist talking points? “Its [sic] not racism is [sic] fact,” typos and all, shows up all over the place to preface non-facts — a number of which were already debunked upthread.

  • @Dan – It is not a thing that these protests have actually done.

  • Jenny A. Owens

    Exactly! It doesn’t matter if there is another way they can travel or not because once they are stuck in traffic it’s too late. Protesters absolutely have the right to peacefully protest but do NOT have the legal right to block traffic, sidewalks or businesses while doing so (without a permit). What kind of person thinks exercising their rights should be allowed to override someone elses? Arrest them if they don’t have a permit, and apply the maximum fine as allowable by law. Grow up people- we all have laws and rules to designed to keep peace and enforce everyone’s rights. Those that don’t like it are more than welcome to leave this country- but you might discover how very good you had it here when you do!

  • Jeff Chang

    So supporters of increased abortion restrictions should be alliwed to block all major highways, train, and subway lines into a city for hours, everyday until they get thier demands met?

  • Dan

    If they have that kind of persistence good luck to them. Rights aren’t curtailed due to inconvenience to others alone, you have to show actual harm.

  • C. D. Carney

    I just don’t understand why any protester who wants their cause to be heard and to be accepted and to grow and matter would waste their only chance to gain support by irritating every person who winds up late to work, stands up a date, can’t make a critical appointment, or who winds up stuck in an ambulance. If BLM causes me to be stuck in my car for an hour I won’t take notice of them and say hmm, I would like to support them. I’m going to say something rather vile and rude and hope they go away failures as fast as possible.

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