Over the next several months Scroll will deliver a series on the First Amendment. Scroll will analyze how the rights promised in the Constitution have developed over time and what their future looks like. This article is a part of the review of the freedom to assemble and the right to petition the government for redress of grievances.
The importance of protests
Democracy includes more than just electoral politics — it is also powered by demonstrations and gatherings of discontent. Peaceful assemblies and protests are protected by the first amendment, and its application can be found both in Idaho now and historically.
During Idaho’s early statehood in the late 1800s, activists and workers organized a few prominent mining and labor strikes. During the 1950s, civil rights groups in Idaho organized to overturn YMCA policies that discriminated against Black people, according to KTVB.
Furthermore, a clash in July occurred during a protest in Boise between Black Lives Matter activists and counter-protesters, which spurred a reaction from the Mayor of Boise condemning white nationalist rhetoric. The situation was described as “unprecedented” by the Boise Police Department.
Scroll reached out to a few students to gather their thoughts on how protests, in general, serve society.
“The main function of protests in our society is to stand up to authority and policies to say that changes must be made,” said Aliza Aquino, a senior studying public policy and administration. “But I also think that one of the more inherent purposes of a protest is to provide a space and sense of community where people can stand, march, and chant in solidarity with others. It’s a way of building each other up while also finding a way to tear down poorly designed laws or practices in an institution that marginalizes or oppresses others.”
Another student emphasized protests’ ability to do outreach.
“I think one of the biggest purposes of protests is that it brings a message to a new audience in ways they didn’t expect,” said David Johnson, a senior studying communication. “Issues you hear about on the news don’t have the same impact as seeing your neighbors and friends take to the streets.”
These students also shared their thoughts on the potential “limits” to protests and if they can go too far.
“It’s difficult to really draw a clear line on what the limits of protest are when you’re living in a country that was built by a protest of an oppressive government,” Aquinas said. “The thing is that virtually anyone from novice to expert on politics can say ‘Here’s the line we should draw on what not to do at protests,’ and then history will show you millions of oppressed people crossing that line to obtain justice. But really what I think a lot of people look for in a movement is legitimacy. Are the people fighting something legitimate? Do they themselves have legitimacy behind their cause? I’ve observed more often than not that people may undercut protestors’ legitimacy when people believe protestors are causing violence, even when it’s caused by unaffiliated rioters. On the other hand, we should reflect if we would undercut an authority’s legitimacy if they too are causing unnecessary violence.”
Aquinas expressed that our views of protests are largely influenced by the media we consume.
“The reality of it all is that right now we look at social media, we’re seeing a lot of protests where violence is being brought about from the authorities rather than protestors, while on more traditional forms of media, you’re seeing actions of rioters being amplified, and that is confusing for many people,” Aquinas said. “But it really makes you wonder about the audience of a country that requires any act of violence to be blasted all across social media or the news to form opinions or discourse on the fundamental right to protest.”
Johnson elaborated that it’s important to keep in mind that protests are only one way of engaging in democracy.
“Protests have limits, but that’s because I don’t think they’re meant to be your only option to try and bring about change,” Johnson said. “They’re a powerful tool but you need the whole toolbox.”
Recent Protests in Idaho and the reasoning
The anti-shutdown and anti-mask movement
On April 25, residents of Rexburg gathered to protest Governor Brad Little’s stay-at-home order and the enactment of government shutdowns. On June 2, residents of Rexburg gathered in one of several protests against police brutality and systemic racism under the Black Lives Matter movement. Later that month, on June 17, another protest was held in Rexburg, this time to protest the possible mandating of wearing masks in public.
Rod Klinger was one of the main organizers for the June 17 demonstration to protest against the possible mask mandate in Rexburg. The city council ended up voting against mandating masks, in agreement with the protestors.
Klinger began his involvement in politics holding signs with his family for the support of Proposition 8 in California, which sought to eliminate the right of same-sex couples to marry. Later on, he was also involved in protesting vaccine mandates in California that he felt violated bodily autonomy.
Klinger cited several reasons in an email for why he chose to protest the possible mask mandate and why he was skeptical about the mainstream narrative surrounding the coronavirus.
“I do not wear a mask, and will not,” Klinger said in an email, explaining that he felt the data regarding coronavirus had been falsified. “Many of the people I have met at mask-mandate protests — some of whom do, in fact, choose to wear masks — have a large variety of concerns … such as the way fears of a pandemic are being used to push frightening things like full-time surveillance and tracking of our movements, a move to a solely digital currency, and other things. My father worked in Folsom Prison. You don’t track a free people, you track prisoners.”
Furthermore, Klinger expressed how his fears of government over-involvement extend to taxation for certain local projects.
“For instance, Ezra Taft Benson is frequently quoted when liberty is discussed,” Klinger said. “He explained that we cannot delegate to our representatives (in government) the right to do anything we do not have the right to do ourselves. Well, Rexburg currently has several projects in the works that violate that principle, such as the construction of what I believe is a dog park? We have tens of thousands of people who will never use that, and we will all be robbed equally through taxation to pay for it. But at the very foundation of the principle outlined by Pres. Benson, we see that I don’t have the right to walk to my neighbor’s house with a gun and demand he pay his share of my, pardon the phrase, pet project.”
Klinger also made a point to relate his concerns back to his faith as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“From a purely LDS standpoint, what we are seeing right now is a low-level version of the War in Heaven, which was, as we are told, fought over whether or not we should be allowed to come to earth and make choices that involve risk, or to take the collective safe route and bypass the risk by allowing a governmental representative to have complete control over our actions,” Klinger wrote.
The Black Lives Matter movement
Shonaka Phebe is a BYU-Idaho student who was involved with organizing and promoting the Black Lives Matter protests in Rexburg. She explained that she was never heavily involved in politics until she came to Rexburg and witnessed racism and other regressive views.
“Our main message is really to end police brutality and give Black people and people of color equal rights,” Phebe said. “We’ve been asking for rights ever since we’ve been stolen from our own continent and moved here forcefully … We are still behind and it’s been over 400 years.”
In an article from the Standard Journal, Mayor Jerry Merrill specifically described the Rexburg Black Lives Matter protests as peaceful, but Phebe responded to the criticism that some Americans feel they can’t support the movement because of certain incidents of rioting or looting occurring in various cities across America.
“Black people have been oppressed for way too long, and I think the rest of America can suck it up if a couple buildings are being burned down … imagine how we must feel having to deal with the frustration … it’s sad that these things have even become political.”
Phebe elaborated on how she viewed the political divide in America.
“I think the reason that it is so split is that the people who are protesting anti-mask are people who are typically republican who feel like the Black Lives Matter movement is a more political movement … it shouldn’t be about political parties; it’s about human rights. So I think people are confused by that and feel as if they need to be our rivals or our enemies,” Phebe said. “I think also, on the other side… it’s all just turned into something political when it shouldn’t be. It should be a health issue … These two movements don’t technically have anything to do with each other … the underlying reasons do correlate, unfortunately.”
Phebe expressed that, in terms of things to be politically focused on, being against a mask mandate feels insulting.
“I think it’s insulting because a lot of us are here trying to fight for our rights to actually live in this country and not be afraid that we won’t make it back home, because at the end of the day, the people that are supposed to be protecting us aren’t, and they’re just killing us,” Phebe said. “There’s a group of people out there who are protesting masks and the right to be healthy and safe so it’s kind of insulting because it kind of just shows the privilege,” said Phebe.