Perhaps unbeknownst to most Warrensburg residents, there have been two assemblies of people gathering on the lawn of the courthouse in the past month that were very different from each other — one was in support of Greta Thunberg and the young people all over the world who walked out of school to protest the inaction of our leaders in regard to the climate crisis, and the other was an assembly of people who gathered to show their support of President Trump.
Currently, there are many people in the streets of Hong Kong and cities in Chile, South Sudan, Iraq and Lebanon protesting to bring their grievances before the government.
In the USA, the Constitution explicitly provides for “the right of the people peacefully to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
This First Amendment right of assembly allows groups with very different beliefs to come together (think Ku Klux Klan, Westboro Baptist Church, anti-war groups, Poor People’s Campaign) to make a statement to the government and others about their beliefs and what they want to change in our country.
It’s hard to imagine our history without the women’s suffrage movement, the civil rights movement, the movement against the Vietnam War, all of which changed the course of our government, our laws and our institutions through the power of assembly.
In some countries, peaceful assemblies are not treated in the same way that they are in the United States; it’s often more dangerous.
During the current protests in Iraq, the latest news report is that 250 protesters have been killed, including the killing on Oct. 29, reportedly being done by “masked gunmen in plain black clothes” and security forces that charged protesters with live ammunition.
During the Palestinian protests along the border of Israel last year, 183 protesters were killed and over 6,000 wounded by snipers, and the Israeli use of force has been condemned by a U.N. General Assembly Resolution.
Seemingly good news came from Lebanon on Oct. 30, when the prime minister resigned because of the protests there, with very little bloodshed.
Though the right to peacefully assemble has generally been respected by our government, this has not always been the case.
The FBI under J. Edgar Hoover considered Martin Luther King Jr. an “enemy of the state” and wiretapped his phone, even though the civil rights protests were non-violent, and the protesters often took abuse from the police.
Some of us are old enough to remember Kent State and the killing of some demonstrators and even uninvolved students by the National Guard.
There are numerous other examples from our history.
Recently, in a different twist, Dakota Access Pipeline brought in a private security company that deployed dogs against Native Americans who were protesting the building of the oil pipeline across the land they consider to be sacred.
The right to assemble peaceably, along with the other rights guaranteed by our constitution, has been an important part of our history in the United States.
It has been a way for people to express their concerns and grievances to elected officials and to the government.
It has also been a way for citizens to ask for changes in the laws of our land, government policies and the treatment of marginalized people.
It continues to be a legal way for common folks to be energized and united to call attention to injustices and to bring about meaningful change in our society.
There are those who would take away that right by making it unlawful or advocating for severe penalties for engaging in protest.
I believe it is an essential right that needs to be upheld and protected in our democracy.