I respect protesters.
As an American I feel it would be hypocritical to not respect people who risk their freedom, and potentially their lives, to express their heartfelt opinions.
Our country owes its very existence to protesters, as anyone knows who has even a scanty knowledge of the Revolutionary War period.
But it’s equally obvious that not all protests are equivalent.
To use a current example, complaining about America’s immigration policy, and the federal agency that enforces it, is hardly comparable to trying to establish a new country while still under the legal and military shackles of a powerful nation on another continent.
The protesters who gathered earlier this month outside the Portland office of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency have expressed specific, and legitimate, concerns about the recently rescinded policy of the Trump administration that separated children of illegal immigrants from their parents.
One of their objectives, however, — to abolish the agency — strikes me as illogical.
Solving America’s immigration problems by pretending they don’t exist, and by implying that the federal government has no obligation to monitor who enters the country, is as nonsensical as shutting down police departments because a tiny percentage of officers mistreat suspects.
But it’s not the Portland ICE protesters’ goals that bothered me so much as their tactics.
They are of course legally entitled to congregate on public property around the ICE office and to express their disdain for the agency and its mission.
But by trying to block access to the building itself, which they did until federal officers arrived Thursday morning, the protesters were breaking federal law.
In a superficial sense the strategy worked. ICE closed the Portland office on June 19.
I don’t believe, though, that it’s necessary, or in this case justifiable, to break the law and to deprive citizens of access to an agency they pay for, to make an effective statement about U.S. immigration policy.
Nor am I mollified because some protesters offered to help people who came to the ICE office seeking a service, by driving them to the agency’s office in Tacoma, Washington, for instance. The government, which is to say the taxpayers, already spends money to serve those people. The protesters’ claim that they’re trying to offset the effects of their actions is akin to me blocking access to the post office and then offering to haul the mail in my car. It’s silly and juvenile.
As a general rule, if you want to persuade people that your position is righteous you’ll accomplish more by making thoughtful statements rather than acting like a mob.
The injustices that Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists sought to end were a much darker stain on America’s soul than Trump’s ill-advised “no tolerance” policy on illegal immigration.
Yet it is King’s words for which he will always be remembered, and venerated — words that invoked American’s sympathies in a way that people who simply sit in driveways never will accomplish.
While reading about the protesters shutting down the Portland ICE office I thought about the thousands of Northeastern Oregon residents who worry that the U.S. Forest Service will ban motorized vehicles from thousands of miles of roads.
This is not a civil rights issue, to be sure, but it is a matter of great importance to those who have protested the Forest Service’s travel management policy.
Yet rather than try to interfere with the agency, a selfish act that would affect other people who simply want to enjoy their public lands, the road closure protesters employed methods that conveyed their concerns in a meaningful way but without the obnoxious, obstructionist tactics that protesters in Portland, at the ICE office and in other places, sometimes settle for.
The Forest Service protesters signed petitions opposing new restrictions on motorized use of roads.
They submitted comments to the agency’s proposals, they attended public meetings to voice their displeasure, and they brandished signs during community parades.
They have supported congressional candidates who in theory could influence Forest Service policies.
It seems to me that these activities required at least as much commitment — and rather more deliberation — than plunking down a folding chair next to the entrance to the ICE office in Portland and jabbing a sign at the sky.
I understand that some Portland protesters believe they are justified in breaking federal law because the government action that prompted their protests is itself illegal.
Perhaps this is so. But that question has not been decided by the legal system, which, like the right to peaceably assemble, is a foundational principle of our republic.
It’s little wonder, though, that people feel entitled to flout federal law in Portland.
The city’s mayor, Ted Wheeler, has expressed his disgust for Trump’s no tolerance policy, which is reasonable.
But Wheeler also said he would not allow Portland police to participate in any arrests of protesters at the ICE office, which is not.
It’s not consistent, either, since, as The Oregonian reported, Portland Police Bureau officers did remove protesters from the same ICE office last year.
More troubling than Wheeler’s hypocrisy, though, is the implication of a series of tweets he wrote about the ICE protest.
“I want to be very clear I do not want the Portland Police to be engaged or sucked into a conflict, particularly from a federal agency that I believe is on the wrong track,” Wheeler tweeted.
I can understand the mayor’s reluctance to have Portland police break up a legal protest. They certainly have no reason to interfere with protesters who are merely exercising their constitutional rights.
But Wheeler’s tweet implies not only that he would resist calling in police to deal with any conflict, which is an awfully broad term and could include criminal activity, but that his decision might well be influenced not by potential threats to the public but by his personal political preferences.
The Portland protesters have in the main been peaceful, and I respect that, as I respect their sincerity.
But it would be folly to believe that protests don’t have the potential for conflicts, to borrow Wheeler’s word.
And it seems to me that the mayor is doing a disservice to his constituents by suggesting that if they’re thrust into a potentially dangerous situation, perhaps through no fault of their own, that politics might in any way affect the police response.
J ayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.