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Marina Ovsyannikova’s courage should make U.S. stop our own war against protests | Will Bunch

Americans' cheering for everyday Russians standing up to Putin should make us rethink a wave of new U.S. laws that criminalize protesting.

As news anchor Yekaterina Andreyeva, center, discusses Russia's relations with Belarus, Marina Ovsyannikova, right, burst into view, holding up a handwritten poster saying "No war" in English.
As news anchor Yekaterina Andreyeva, center, discusses Russia's relations with Belarus, Marina Ovsyannikova, right, burst into view, holding up a handwritten poster saying "No war" in English.Read more-/AFP / MCT

It was a stunning, brave act that electrified Americans — even if no one witnessed it in real time. But the soon-to-be-viral video of a Russian state TV employee named Marina Ovsyannikova crashing a live broadcast with a large “NO WAR” sign criticizing the regime of Vladimir Putin for its brutal invasion of Ukraine seemed to encapsulate what’s at stake in the conflict — including the power of everyday people to speak out against autocratic regimes.

As many viewers first feared, Ovsyannikova — who released an accompanying video that denounced Putin by name and confessed that in her role as an editor for Channel One she’d worked “to zombify Russian people” with propaganda — was arrested and interrogated for 14 long hours. But although many worried that the journalist faced prison time under Russia’s harsh new censorship law, the worldwide spotlight on this act of courage, which the Kremlin called “hooliganism,” likely played a role in a judge’s decision to only impose a roughly $280 fine.

Ovsyannikova’s continued freedom after risking so much to speak out has been a ray of hope during a relentlessly brutish invasion that has killed thousands — with hundreds of innocent civilians, including children, among the dead. But the same is true of the courage of thousands of everyday Russians who’ve taken to the streets or also spoken out publicly against Putin’s invasion. The regime is said to have arrested 15,000 demonstrators in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and elsewhere. The Russia protests are in the same spirit of unvarnished courage as the Ukrainian people taking up arms to defend their homeland. And they raise an existential question: What are we willing to risk to protect our liberty?

“Remember Marina Ovsyannikova,” USA Today’s deputy opinions editor Tim Swarens wrote in an op-ed that very much captured the moment and the mood. “She spoke truth to a power that can lock her away, kill her, erase all mention of her inside her homeland — and did so precisely because she is a Russian who loves her country.”

And yet I can’t help be struck by a huge irony. At the very moment that Americans (along with most of the world) are swooning over the audacity of the Russian naysayers and how that defines the greater struggle between democracy and authoritarianism, lawmakers across the United States are pushing a plethora of bills aimed at criminalizing political protest in this country — sometimes in ways that mimic the worst of Putin’s Russia.

Just last April, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — a bellwether figure in the post-Trump-presidency Republican Party — signed what he called an “anti-riot law” that critics said would have a chilling effect on legitimate and mostly peaceful protests. That measure increased penalties for blocking roadways — which commonly occurs in today’s non-violent demonstrations — while creating a new, vague crime called “mob intimidation,” and all but requiring that those arrested during a protest spend at least one night in jail.

That extreme measure in America’s third most populous state is on hold — a federal judge ruled in September that it’s a “vague and overbroad” assault on the 1st Amendment that harkened back to Florida’s Jim Crow segregation era — but scores of similar anti-protest bills are marching forward in a number of states. The International Center for Not-For-Profit Law (ICNL) is currently tracking 120 separate bills in 37 states — the most by far since the center started keeping track. The momentum is an apparent backlash to 2020′s protests after the police murder of George Floyd.

“It’s fair to say our ability to protest is under attack,” Elly Page, the ICNL’s senior advisor, told me this week. Among the wide array of anti-protest proposals her center is closely tracking are bills that would increase the legal liability for groups such as non-profits and even churches that authorities connect to “an unlawful assembly” (Oklahoma), draconian measures for offenses such as trespassing near an oil pipeline (Louisiana), or a maximum penalty of as much as a year behind bars for a common activity in a non-violent protest of blocking sidewalks (Tennessee).

You may have noticed that many of the most extreme proposals are in GOP-dominated “red states,” and they closely align with the political backlash against the 2020 racial reckoning after Floyd’s murder, as well as the power of oil and gas lobbyists who are increasingly worried about climate-change activism. But that’s only part of the story, because the reality is that these new laws are on top of a long climate of militarized policing and tactics such as mass arrests that accelerated in the era after the 9/11 attacks. Some of the most hostile policing of political protests takes place in cities with progressive Democratic mayors, like New York or Portland, Oregon.

Indeed, I wonder if Americans who’ve watched in awe in recent days as those estimated 15,000 Russians have been arrested for protesting Putin’s war in Ukraine remember that it was just two years ago that about 14,000 U.S. citizens were arrested protesting for racial justice — and it’s believed that only a small fraction of them were taking part in more violent activities like looting or arson. In fact, research has shown that 96% of 2020′s George Floyd marchers were completely non-violent.

So what explains the repressive wave of anti-protest laws? Are the politicians like DeSantis really worried about impeded sidewalks ... or defending the increasingly untenable regimes of white supremacy or greenhouse-gas pollution that’s sent folks out into the streets?

» READ MORE: From Minn. to Philly, cops, troops flood the zone, violate our rights — and make us less safe | Will Bunch

“Throughout American history, people have come together to voice collective concerns through protest, and that has allowed us to secure so many rights and freedoms that we cherish — workers’ rights, civil rights, women’s rights,” Page said. That’s true, but there’s always been a clash between the poetry of the 1st Amendment and the prose of our reactive politics. The road to the 1965 Voting Rights Act passed through George Wallace’s storm troopers on “Bloody Sunday,” while Pinkerton guards tried to beat back the eight-hour workday.

“I saw a ton of photos of the arrests in Moscow and the ones in U.S. cities in 2020. They look the same in any language.”

Will Bunch

And yet there seems an unprecedented authoritarian brutality to the current backlash. Consider the growing problem of motorists striking peaceful protest marchers — sometimes accidentally, sometimes intentionally — with their vehicles. That happened more than 100 times during the George Floyd protests, which spawned a flurry of proposals — not to protect the demonstrators, but the drivers. A 2021 Iowa law, for example, shields such motorists from any civil liability, as long as that driver claims he was exercising “due care” before plowing into his fellow humans. I’m sure that would draw a glint of approval from an autocrat like Putin.

In fact, while the whole world was watching the protests on Russian streets, the state Senate in Georgia (the U.S. state, not the former Soviet republic) was passing a bill that not only increased protest-related penalties but added tough new restrictions on obtaining local government approval before any march or rally. If that sounds familiar, Russian authorities used a very similar law — protests there are only approved with a minimum of 10 days advance notice — as grounds for the thousands of arrests there. Indeed, in researching this column I saw a ton of photos of the arrests in Moscow and the ones in U.S. cities in 2020. They look the same in any language.

There’s no doubt that Putin’s tyranny and the war in Ukraine have caused many of us to think longer and harder about the value of liberty, and what it means to be truly free. Many in the United States have asked what they can do to help the cause of democracy, when the front lines are halfway around the world. It seems to me that fighting to stop these repressive new laws, and urging our already militarized police departments to work harder at respecting the 1st Amendment, is a good place to start. A hero like Marina Ovsyannikova deserves the right to protest her own government — but so do you.

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