Analysis

Mississippi laws threaten protesters with jail

This summer, a group of Black organizers in Holmes County reconstituted the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, the historic Party of Fannie Lou Hamer which sought to challenge the stranglehold of racist Democrats in Mississippi. Cardell Wright, the chairman of the new MFDP, and Black Lives Matter organizers teamed up on Feb. 1 to protest the Confederate monument that sits outside the courthouse in Lexington, Mississippi. 

Wright and others also took the opportunity to speak out against Mississippi’s new anti-protest laws. He said, “First amendment rights, they’re trying to take them away from us… but you can’t shut us up. We have a right to assemble ourselves… to protest… to speak out, and we will not be silenced any longer!”

This summer, a multinational mass movement around the nation demonstrated its collective power by taking to the streets to condemn racism and demand justice for the victims of police violence. Working class people of oppressed nationalities were central to this national struggle. In response, several states across the country introduced legislation to punish protestors and discourage mass mobilizations against police brutality. In addition, since the Trump-instigated attack on the Capitol on Jan 6 by a fascist mob, a new set of bills have been introduced by Republican legislators in states such as Mississippi, Florida, and Indiana, that seek to establish penalties for a wide range of activities related to protest and mass assembly. These bills, if passed, however, will disproportionately impact and be enforced against those on the left of the political spectrum.

Photo by Liberation News

In Mississippi, the first of these anti-protest laws was passed in June. The law threatens individuals who protest oil and gas pipelines or other “critical infrastructure” projects with up to 7 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.  Any organizations that supports the protesters could face $100,000 in penalties. This law could take on increasing importance as the climate crisis intensifies and collective resistance to pipelines and other oil extraction sites become more popular.

In the city of Memphis, which borders Mississippi, working class people are currently locked in a legal and political battle with oil giant Valero over an oil pipeline project. The residents of the impacted Boxtown neighborhood are organizing alongside local and national organizations and making gains. Nationally, the over a decade-long struggle by the environmental movement against the Keystone XL pipeline project saw an important victory this year, although the fight continues. This working class power threatens the oil companies that reactionary state governments have allowed to crisscross states with dangerous pipelines.

Mississippi legislators are set to consider another law that was passed through committee this month. The law will target protesters who block traffic, threatening them with at least 25 days in jail and fines up to $1,500. This is a common tactic that has been used historically, including during the Civil Rights Movement which was notoriously attacked by racist police and their dogs while protesters peacefully marched through the streets. Today, protest marshals must often hold off oncoming traffic to protect marchers; meanwhile white supremacists have used their vehicles to maim or even kill protesters.

These blatant efforts to criminalize political expression are nothing new. From the Black Codes, passed to suppress Black political participation in the years following Reconstruction, to the laws passed during the 1960s targeting organizers and protecting white supremacists, the Mississippi legislature has a long history of being used to curtail working class and Black political power.

Despite these attempts to suppress protests, Mississippi organizers, like the freedom fighters who came before them, remain dedicated to fighting back against white supremacy, climate disaster, and capitalism. As Chairman Wright said, “We won’t stop! No matter the opposition, no matter the white supremacists, no matter white nationalists, no matter law enforcement, we’re still going to do what we have to until justice is served!”

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