USA: Silencing dissent is the trump card of dictators, not democracies

ARTICLE 19 is deeply concerned by US President Trump’s response to the National Football League (NFL) players’ participation in the protests at games across the country. NFL players have been linking arms in solidarity with their teammates criticised by Trump and kneeling during the national anthem at the start of games to protest the racial discrimination African-Americans experience. Trump has labelled the protesters as “sons of bitches” and called for their firing.

The ‘take-a-knee’ protest began last year when NFL player Colin Kaepernick became the first athlete to kneel during the national anthem. His initial silent protest has since prompted similar actions across the sports and entertainment industry and can be tracked by following the hashtag #TakeAKnee.

ARTICLE 19 defends the right to protest as an individual and collective exercise of human rights, including freedom of expression. As the US President, we call on Trump to uphold a proud tradition of free speech and protest in America, and reflect on the importance of these rights in US history.

“The ‘take-a-knee’ protest echoes a long history of non-violent protest in African American social movements,” said Thomas Hughes, Executive Director, ARTICLE 19. “Instead of recognising the richness of this heritage and the positive influence such protests have in sparking important debates about racism, Trump is playing the wrong card. Silencing dissent is the trump card of dictatorial autocrats, not democratic leaders.”

A vibrant culture of protest and debate is the hallmark of a free, open, and democratic society. And just like any societal phenomenon, protest takes both inspiration from the past and organically evolves in the present. ARTICLE 19’s Right to Protest Principles elaborate a set of minimum standards for the respect, protection and fulfilment of the right to protest, while promoting a clear recognition of the limited scope of permissible restrictions.

Protest is at the forefront of expression: it often involves pushing boundaries and challenging accepted norms. It is a creative expression that fosters political and sociological discussion far beyond the walls of any protest group. It intersects with two fundamental human rights: freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly and association. A democratic government should welcome protest as a crucial part of the checks and balances we put in place to manage power.

Protests enable individuals and groups to express dissent and grievances, to share views and opinions, to expose flaws in governance and to publicly demand that the authorities and other powerful entities rectify problems and are accountable for their actions. This is especially important for those whose interests are otherwise poorly represented or marginalised.

Because of the important role that protests play in challenging entrenched norms and elites, it is not surprising that governments around the world too often treat protests as either an inconvenience to be controlled or a threat to be extinguished.  However, it is shocking that this contempt has now reached the highest level of American government.

ARTICLE 19 strongly encourages President Trump to recognise how protest can be a tool to improve government and cure a nation’s ills.

We stand with the professional athletes exercising the right to protest in recent days. I sincerely hope that President Trump decides to honor the American tradition of protest, instead of seeking to stifle it”, concluded Hughes.