Americans these days are increasingly exercising their First Amendment rights. Specifically, they are embracing the clauses that guarantee “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
Whether this is a direct response to the Trump presidency is a discussion for another time. For now, the focus is on citizens – often led by teenagers and young adults – taking to the streets to express their displeasure. The cause might be government inaction on climate change or inaction on gun violence or any variety of grievances. Or, as we have seen often in Portland and occasionally in Vancouver, Washington, it might be competing rallies supporting President Trump or opposing him.
All of that calls for an examination of the current American psyche – in addition to a celebration of the rights to peaceably assemble and petition the government.
In one recent example, activist group Protectors of the Salish Sea, an indigenous-led organization, walked 46 miles from Tacoma to the state capitol in Olympia, setting up camp and vowing to stay until their voices are heard on environmental issues. Among the demands: that Gov. Jay Inslee declare a climate emergency in the state, and that he issue an executive order to stop fossil-fuel expansion projects in the state.
Group members reportedly said Inslee should not be concerned with state laws or with the constitutionality of his actions. “Obviously, we don’t agree on their approach,” Tara Lee, a spokeswoman for the governor, told the Olympian newspaper. Obviously, neither do we. Adhering to the rule of law is especially important during contentious times that threaten to tear at the fabric of the nation.
And yet, the engagement of those willing to protest and those who demonstrate increased interest in our political system is inspiring and encouraging.
This is particularly true for young adults who eventually will inherit a system that is currently broken. Students from Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where a mass shooting killed 17 people in 2018, have been at the forefront of activism in favor of gun control. And Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swedish girl, has become the global face of climate activism while chastising political leaders and inspiring millions of people young and old to get involved. The vitriol directed at Thunberg by numerous conservatives demonstrates how clearly her message resonates and how threatening it is to the status quo.
At a Sept. 20 demonstration at Esther Short Park as part of a Global Climate Strike, one 16-year-old told the Columbian: “This is our future. We’re trying to make it known that we have a voice and we care.”
Exercising that voice is an essential part of being an American. As President Teddy Roosevelt is credited with saying: “Patriotism means to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the president or any other public official.”
Or, as President John F. Kennedy said: “Without debate, without criticism no administration and no country can succeed and no republic can survive.”
Or, as author and theologian Darrell Smith said: “Protest should demonstrate love and investment. It should be a sign that we are so invested that we are not willing to settle or surrender.”
Those quotes reflect the impetus behind increased political engagement, particularly among young people. As long as such engagement remains peaceable, it should be encouraged by all Americans who respect the United States Constitution.
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