Much has been said of late about protests, as they have sprung up all over the country. Perhaps the most disturbing of all the commentary has been the idea that protest is somehow unpatriotic or illegal. This could not be further from the truth. The people who hold in such high regard the Second Amendment right to bear arms, totally overlook the First Amendment Freedom of Assembly and Petition. The founding fathers felt that it was so important they stated that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

This amendment means that people have a right to gather in the public square and complain about the government. Somehow the president has persisted in labeling all protest he doesn’t like as leftist riots by unpatriotic looters and thugs. This is not only unfair, it misses the point entirely. Marching, waving flags or signs, and making speeches have been widely accepted as constitutional First Amendment rights, even though we may not like or agree with the messages. This administration allows all manner of behaviors by people who agree with his right white American agenda but considers even the most passive protest by people of color dangerous.

There is a difference between exercising the freedom to protest and civil or criminal acts of vandalism. One does not equal the other. In any large gathering, there may be people who act out following their own agenda, maybe even using the protest to cover their own criminal actions. Often, they want to discredit the legitimate message of the protesters and may have been sent by opposing groups for that purpose. People protesting the ongoing and systematic racism and brutality by the police are angry, and it is a righteous anger born of centuries of mistreatment and abuse. Why are angry, gun-toting white people seen as patriots exercising their free speech, while unarmed shouting black people are seen as violent? Perhaps it says more about our guilt for centuries of treating them like livestock or imbeciles in order to protect our fragile sense of superiority.

We tried to enslave the native people and failing that, we tried to destroy them with disease and wars. We pushed them onto reservations, took their children away to whiten them, and dismantled their culture. We brought Chinese people to America to build the railroads and when we were done with them threw them out or killed them. We tore apart Black families for our own purposes and kept them in chains so they could neither fight nor flee. When the slaves were finally freed we still kept them “ in their place” with Jim Crow laws and segregation, out of fear, because we knew in our hearts none of it was justifiable. After the nearly century and a half that black men have had the right to vote, we are still actively trying to keep them away from the polls in numerous states. It is a curious thing that the same people who cheered when Iraqis turned out in such large numbers to vote for their new democracy, don’t want whole segments of American citizens to vote at all.

For 400 years white people have seen Native Americans, Blacks, Asians, Hispanics and anyone ‘different’ as not American, regardless of their citizenship. But they are citizens, and they have as much right to speak, assemble, vote, be angry, and even carry weapons, as any other law-abiding citizen. Yet somehow they have not been treated equally under the law. It’s well past the time we came to terms with our bigoted racist past and accepted that.

Susan Chichetto lives in Bath.

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