I’m almost sad I didn’t get to write the column originally mapped out for today, which was to be a long day’s journey to get my COVID-19 vaccine at the Rite Aid in a place called Hermitage, Pa., which (I now know, after consulting the map) is a heck of a lot closer to Youngstown, Ohio, than to Philly. But at the last minute, an opening popped in Delco, and, in the spirit of Bon Jovi, we’re halfway there on the inoculation front — but lacking a good yarn. Did someone forward you this email? Sign up to receive this newsletter weekly at inquirer.com/bunch, for your weekly shot in the arm of political snark and obsessive ‘60s nostalgia.
After people protested police violence, lawmakers are making it a crime ... to protest
The massive marches against racial injustice and police violence after 2020′s killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery. Protests on Native American land against the Dakota Access pipeline. The January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Arguably, these three events have little in common with each other, except that now they’ve inspired some bad ideas and worse legislation in a number of statehouses and on Capitol Hill — most, although not all, from Republicans — that would criminalize one of the most fundamental rights in American democracy, to dissent against the government.
The biggest gut punch to the American Experiment came last week in Kentucky, which just this Saturday marked the one-year anniversary of the senseless killing of Louisville’s Taylor, a 26-year-old ER technician who was gunned down in a police drug raid gone horribly wrong. It’s bad enough that none of the responding officers has been charged in her death. But now state legislators in conservative Kentucky, which has seen continuous protests since the killing, have advanced a law — of dubious constitutionality — to make it illegal to say bad things to a cop.
The bill that the Kentucky Senate passed last week makes it a misdemeanor to taunt a police officer, with words or gestures, “that would have a direct tendency to provoke a violent response from the perspective of a reasonable and prudent person.” In the past, state jurists and the U.S. Supreme Court have cited the 1st Amendment in finding that it’s not a crime to say rude things or even curse at a police officer, but now the Bluegrass State is saying that if you flip the bird at a cop and he tries to bash in your skull, the whole thing was your fault.
Although the anti-taunting-the-police provision garnered the most headlines, the Kentucky bill also expands the definition of illegal protest while strengthening the penalties for “rioting” and making it harder to get out of jail, and it even includes some vague language intended to thwart the “defund the police” movement. If the bill passes the state House and is signed by the state’s Democratic governor, Andy Beshear (an uncertain prospect), it would surely put more people behind bars for protesting the killing of Breonna Taylor than people who actually killed her.
In a vacuum, this alone would be outrageous. But instead — after a decade in which more Americans protested more things, from Occupy Wall Street to Ferguson to the Women’s March to the George Floyd protests, than any time since the 1960s — the Kentucky scheme is just the most extreme example of a flurry of bills meant to criminalize your right to air your grievances against the government.
A bill in Oklahoma, for example, would protect drivers who plowed their car into a crowd of protesters and make it illegal to post information about law-enforcement officers online which, as critics noted, might criminalize videos like the ones that showed the world what happened to George Floyd. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis — considered a GOP presidential frontrunner for 2024 if Donald Trump doesn’t run — is pushing legislation for steep felony sentences for those found to be rioting, and to shield people who shoot protesters or run them over from lawsuits.
The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law said recently that 23 states are considering 48 anti-protest bills so far in 2021. That includes four states looking to join 14 others that have declared oil-and-gas pipelines and other fossil-fuel facilities as “critical infrastructure,” which would mean stricter penalties for protesting them — a movement that started after the Dakota Access actions in 2016.
Additionally, some leaders in both parties — even President Biden — are citing the January 6 assault on the Capitol in calling for harsher penalties, including new laws against domestic terrorism. But critics say that even well-meaning efforts to quell certain kinds of dissent have a way of backfiring. “But by using the ‘domestic terrorism’ label to promote more criminal statutes and police authorities, our country’s leaders are invoking systems that have been — and will continue to be — used to target and harm Black and brown people,” wrote Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, and Manar Waheed, ACLU senior legislative and advocacy counsel.
The bigger picture is that — even in a time of optimism over increasing coronavirus vaccines and a generous $1.9 trillion relief package signed by Biden — lawmakers are using false narratives about protests, which have been overwhelmingly peaceful, to pass laws they hope will make many folks including ones who seek to protest police violence, white supremacy or climate change to simply stay home. Just like many of these same Republican legislators want to use the Big Lie about 2020 election fraud that never happened to pass laws in the hopes that many voters will also stay home. Citizens in the affected states need to get out and fight these anti-democratic measures — while they still can.
Yo, do this
Aretha Franklin died in 2018, but the goddess of 20th century soul music seems to be having a moment in 2021. In the final decades of her life, too much of the conversation around the woman who gave us life-changing songs like “Respect” and “Think” centered on her reputation as a difficult diva or her quirks like fear of flying, and not enough about the pure genius behind both her music and her style. You can get a great sense of what made Franklin great from the New York Times’ podcast Still Processing, with Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham, which just re-released its Aretha episode ahead of a new season. On March 21, the Detroit icon finally gets the true title she deserves when “Genius: Aretha” debuts on the NatGeo cable network’s popular series that previously featured Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso. That’s some R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
One of the best media developments over the last few years has been watching the steady rise of Mehdi Hasan, a British-American journalist who moved to America in 2015 and burnished his reputation as a relentless interviewer, especially in confronting conservatives, with Al Jazeera and the Intercept’s Deconstructed podcast. Recently, he launched a nightly news hour on the new streaming network Peacock, which has led to a Sunday night 8 p.m. show on MSNBC. His conversations with the likes of climate activist Greta Thunberg or tough questioning of Biden top aide Ron Klain have made Hasan must-see TV, in an hour that used to be a news desert.
Ask me anything
Question: Three scandals in—the latest is a doozy!—why hasn’t Cuomo resigned yet and concomitantly, why does Biden have to weigh in on this? — Via Victoria Brownworth (@VABVOX) on Twitter
Answer: I’m proud of my consistent track record of ripping the awful reign of New York’s Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo going back to 2014, when I wrote about his corrupt and anti-progressive mismanagement of my native state. Now, amid the allegations of bad and intentionally misleading leadership on the pandemic and serial sexual misconduct, the arrogant heir to the Cuomo political legacy is convinced he can ride out the storm in the same way Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam survived a “blackface” scandal and calls to resign. But Northam persisted because Black voters decided it was better to accept his apology than a possible Republican replacement, while Cuomo has a well-liked Democrat in Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul waiting in the wings. Unlike the GOP ignoring more than two dozen sexual allegations against Donald Trump, too many Democrats take sexual misconduct too seriously, and so there’s no way that Cuomo survives this, regardless of whether Biden weighs in as the party’s leader.
One year ago this week, I tried to make a thing about the phrase “disaster socialism” (Google it, and my March 12, 2020, column is the first hit). It’s the idea that the massive risk to U.S. society posed by the then-new coronavirus could create the need for a government safety net that would be a mirror image of the writer Naomi Klein’s shock doctrine of “disaster capitalism,” or the austerity and elite-benefiting measures typically imposed in a crisis. I wrote then: “But can it” — the shock doctrine — “work in reverse? Can the shock of a pandemic — and the realization that our cruel capitalist constructs have made it harder to deal with — cause a reversal of fortune?”
It took just 364 days for America, and a new president in Joe Biden, and a Democratic Congress provided by Georgia’s Stacey Abrams and friends, to answer that question with a resounding “yes!” In what seems like a 40-year pendulum of U.S. politics punctuated by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Ronald Reagan’s rollback, Biden channelled his inner FDR in signing the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package that returns the idea of social welfare, not just in cash payments to most Americans still reeling from COVID-19 but broader reforms like payouts for raising children. The popularity of both the legislation and of Biden himself, who’s over 60% approval in some polls, suggests there could be more “disaster socialism” on the way in areas from infrastructure to college-debt relief. But it’s a shame that it took more than 500,000 pandemic deaths to shock the United States into finally addressing its gross inequality.
Inquirer reading list
Only one column this week, as I took some much-needed “time off” to work on my 2022 book about the role of college in creating America’s political divide. I looked at a key leg of President Biden’s agenda for restoring the middle class that hasn’t gotten as much attention — full-throated support for a comeback of labor unions. Could Biden’s encouraging words for activists seeking to unionize a massive Amazon “fulfillment center” in Bessemer, Ala., mark a turning point?
My colleague Stephanie Farr has built quite a career out of her love for the quirky personalities that make Philadelphia an American city like no other. Last week, her persistence on that beat paid off with an amazing story that went viral nationally: The Vietnam vet who came home to Philly in the late ‘70s and — known only to friends and some sports insiders — built a secret apartment inside Veterans Stadium (where he was a contractor) and lived there and occasionally attended a Phillies game in his bathrobe for three remarkable years. There’s only one way to read all of Stephanie’s stories, plus my columns, and to support what we do. Please subscribe to The Inquirer.