The words of the First Amendment are quite straightforward:
"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."
Especially simple is that last clause — "the right of people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
It was heartfelt. When the First Amendment was adopted in 1791, our founders may have been channeling the Boston Tea Party of Dec. 16, 1773. That was when American colonists, frustrated and angry at Britain for imposing "taxation without representation," staged one of our country's first protests. And while they were at it, they engaged in a bit of vandalism. At Griffin's Wharf in Boston, Massachusetts, a crowd of some 7,000 American colonists gathered more or less peacefully to watch fellow colonists dressed as Mohawk Indians chop open 342 tea chests and dump them and their contents into the Boston Harbor.
In response, the British ministry, which was using a tariff to try to create a monopoly for the English trading corporation East India Company, closed the port of Boston, altered the colony's charter and ordered British troops to occupy the town.
Sound familiar? And with neither side willing to back down, the stage was set for the final acts leading to the American Revolution.
Perhaps its no wonder that so many military leaders pushed back last week on King Donald Trump's talk of invoking the Insurrection Act and using the military to quell protests in U.S. cities.
You know Trump, the guy who, after giving a law-and-order speech in the Rose Garden on Monday, had federal law enforcement officials fire tear gas and rubber bullets at peaceful demonstrators so he could walk across the street from the White House to the front of St. John's Episcopal Church for a not-so-presidential photo op and hold up a Bible. The church had been slightly damaged by fire in a previous protest.
More than one observer has since noted that Trump didn't bother to open the Bible. Didn't bother to quote from it. Didn't even read Psalm 23 — the Lord is my shepherd — to calm a stressed nation.
No. His message in the Rose Garden was more like vengeance is mine, sayeth King Trump.
Thankfully, there was almost no audio in the shameful and awkward photo op in front of the historic church where Abraham Lincoln went to pray most every night of the Civil War. Trump said very little — mostly his usual babble about making the country greater than ever.
This great country that, under his race-baiting taunts, still wrestles with the rights of any or all of its citizens to peaceably assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
Grievances like dying while a police knee is on your neck for nearly nine minutes. Grievances like being tear-gassed so the president can have a photo op. Grievances like most Americans having to choose between voting or staying healthy as a pandemic rages.
No. This president wants militarized street control.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Wednesday differed with his commander in chief: "The option to use active-duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort and only in the most urgent and dire of situations," Esper said. "We are not in one of those situations now. I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act."
Retired Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under George W. Bush and Barack Obama put it a better way: "Our fellow citizens are not the enemy, and must never become so," Mullen wrote in The Atlantic, adding that he was "sickened" to watch security personnel clear a path for Trump's photo op.
Retired Marine General and former defense secretary Jim Mattis excoriated the president: We know that we are better than the abuse of executive authority that we witnessed in Lafayette Square," he wrote in a statement Wednesday to The Atlantic. "Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try. Instead he tries to divide us."
Former President Bush, too, released a rare statement. In it he not only commended Americans demonstrating against racial injustice but criticized those who try to silence them. "There is a better way — the way of empathy, and shared commitment, and bold action, and a peace rooted in justice," he said.
Former president Barack Obama, noting the number of violent protesters is tiny compared to the peaceful ones, reminded us that, "Every step of progress in this country, every expansion of freedom, every expression of our deepest ideals have been won through efforts that made the status quo uncomfortable. And we should all be thankful for folks who are willing, in a peaceful, disciplined way, to be out there making a difference."
Most Americans — black and white — get it. Just look at the diversity of protesters in news photos and videos.
Maybe that's exactly what so frightens Trump. That we Americans may in fact be far more united than we've ever been. We don't see color so much anymore. But, oh, yeah, we see injustice. And we're seeing it trumpeted by our wanna-be king — Trump himself.