Not a laughing matter

May 9, 2017

The outrageous conviction of a Code Pink protester for laughing during a congressional hearing is a warning to those daring to protest in the Trump era, writes Nicole Colson.

A YEAR in jail for laughing.

That's not a scenario from a dystopian movie set in some far-off future under a repressive government. It's the sentence that Code Pink activist Desiree Fairooz is facing after being convicted in early May of disorderly conduct for--yes--laughing during the confirmation hearing of new Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

The 61-year-old Fairooz, along with fellow Code Pink activists Tighe Barry and Lenny Bianchi, were arrested while attending a January 10 Senate hearing. Fairooz laughed out loud when Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) had the gall to state that Sessions' record of "treating all Americans equally under the law is clear and well-documented."

In fact, Sessions' racist record is so well documented that Shelby himself ran a campaign ad in 1986 suggesting that Sessions had called the Ku Klux Klan "good ole boys."

No wonder Fairooz couldn't help laughing.

As she explained in an interview with Jezebel, she laughed because "I found that statement ridiculous. It was absurd, because his history shows otherwise. At that point, I could not hold in my chortle."

Activist Desiree Fairooz is arrested during a protest of Attorney General Jeff Sessions' confirmation hearing
Activist Desiree Fairooz is arrested during a protest of Attorney General Jeff Sessions' confirmation hearing

According to reports, her laughter didn't prevent Shelby from continuing his praise of Sessions. The only "disorder" was caused when several officers moved in to arrest her. As she was being taken away, Fairooz reportedly shouted, "Do not vote for Jeff Sessions!" and waved a sign that read, "Support Civil Rights, Stop Sessions."

As she explained, "[The police] created disturbance by bringing over other police officers. I was charged with parading, but they paraded me. It was maddening."

Bizarrely, according to the Huffington Post testimony at Fairooz's trial focused on how loud her laugh was, and whether or not it was "reflexive"--with Katherine Coronado, the officer who first moved in to arrest Fairooz, actually testifying that she did not think Shelby's statement was funny enough to warrant a laugh.

Fairooz and her fellow activists remain hopeful that the decision will be vacated. Tellingly, several members of the jury said they felt like they had to convict--because the laws under which they were charged are "so broad." "There's almost no way that you can find them not guilty," one told the Huffington Post.

What you can do

Sign a petition in defense of Desiree Fairooz and her fellow activists and calling for their convictions to be overturned.

For those in the Washington, D.C., area, Code Pink will be holding a "laugh-in" rally and press conference on May 10 at noon at the Justice Department, 9th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.

THESE CONVICTIONS are a troubling sign of what's in store for our right to dissent under the Trump administration.

In the past several months, lawmakers--mainly Republicans--in several states have tried to pass, and in some cases succeeded in passing, legislation curbing the right to protest, increasing fines and penalties for those who do engage in protest, or expanding the right of private entities or the state to pursue damages from individuals and groups who engage in protest.

In early April, Common Dreams reported that proposed laws in at least 19 states would curtail protest rights--and that number is growing.

A case in point: After a wave of anti-oil pipeline protests reached militant heights during the struggle against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin this week signed a bill into law that will increase penalties for protesters convicted of trespassing on property that contains a "critical infrastructure facility"--including fossil-fuel facilities.

As Alleen Brown noted at The Intercept, protesters could face a felony conviction and a minimum $10,000 fine, and "[s]hould the trespasser actually succeed in 'tampering with the infrastructure,' they face a $100,000 fine or 10 years of imprisonment."

That's bad enough. But Brown points out that any organization "found to be a conspirator" can be hit with fines that are "ten times" those imposed on an individual convicted of trespassing--as much as $1 million. A second bill, passed by the Oklahoma House of Representatives, would allow courts to impose "vicarious liability" on groups that "compensate" protesters accused of trespassing.

Oklahoma isn't alone in targeting organizations in addition to individuals. Earlier this year, the Arizona Senate voted to approve a bill that would have expanded the state's racketeering laws beyond organized crime to include "rioting"--and expanded the definition of rioting to refer to any damage to property.

Though ultimately withdrawn after causing an outcry, the bill would have given the government the right to criminally prosecute and seize the assets of protest organizers at a demonstration where, for example, a window was smashed, no matter who did the smashing--even if it was a non-affiliated protester or someone from the opposing side.

No wonder the bill earned the nickname of the "Plan a protest, lose your house" bill.

THE ANTI-protest restrictions are also ramping up at college campuses in the wake of several high-profile clashes between left- and right-wing protesters over speaking engagements by right-wing figures.

Several state legislatures--including Illinois, Tennessee, Colorado and Arizona--have introduced or are considering introducing legislation that would, according to NPR, "require public universities to remain neutral on political issues, prevent them from disinviting speakers, and impose penalties for students and others who interfere with these speakers."

The draft bills are based on a model from the ultra-conservative Goldwater Institute. Attorney Jim Manley, who co-wrote the model bill, told NPR that it's explicitly designed to encourage universities to crack down on protesters--and it's clear he means left-wing protesters. "We think those are incredibly important because what we've seen is that universities haven't really taken this seriously and discipline students who engage in these sorts of belligerent protests," Manley said.

The legislation is designed, among other things, to shut down any protest activities that are "designed to prevent an exchange of ideas"--like chanting at speakers.

He didn't say whether laughing would be included in that definition.

Such legislation should be seen for what it is--an attack on the right to dissent and a move by the powers that be, from the Trump administration on down, to hamstring movements and struggles that could put the brakes on their agenda. It's why, throughout the campaign and into his presidency, Trump has repeatedly attacked those demonstrating against him as "paid protesters," "thugs" and "professional anarchists."

And it's why our side has to oppose any and every measure to curb our right to protest--and follow the example of Desiree Fairooz, who said that despite the threat to her freedom, she will not back down. As she said in a statement released by Code Pink:

Pursuing this case shows that Trump and his Justice Department are intent on quashing dissent. It is also another example of how many Republican officials are using Trump's presidency to restrict liberties at the local, state and national level. We see laws being passed in over a dozen states to make protesting a crime...

I, along with my colleagues at CODEPINK, will continue to speak out against injustice, whether it is mass incarceration, attacks on Muslims and immigrants, or the continuous wars and militarism that are destroying so many lives. As Martin Luther King Jr, famously said "There comes a time when silence is betrayal." I will not be silent.

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