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Opinion: The right to assemble is the bedrock of our democracy — Vote NO on SB 26

The hallmark of a healthy democracy is civil debate, protest, civic engagement, and an unwavering right to voice one’s beliefs even when there is disagreement — especially when there is disagreement. Free speech and assembly are fundamental to a functioning democracy. Their placement in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution implies their importance. It comes as a surprise then to see that the Missouri House is poised to pass a bill that would silence the voices of those rising in defense of Black lives by enacting criminal penalties on the right to protest. 

Congresswoman Cori Bush.
Congresswoman Cori Bush.

Not only that, but it is particularly targeted at protests that we led in St. Louis this past summer as leaders of the protest group #ExpectUS. 

We serve in the General Assembly and the United States House of Representatives. Yet, we have been called terrorists, thugs, and monsters for affirming what should be clear: Black lives matter. They’ve always mattered, but time and time again, generation after generation, Black folks have had to take to acts of protest to affirm our humanity and civil rights. Like our ancestors before us, we are both products of mass protests, taking to the streets demanding that our communities be heard and our lives protected. Our protest has always been an act of love. 

We have organized together in a protest group that begins each protest with a giant circle of love, people dancing and clapping. A protest group that cares for one another and brings snacks and water for one another. One that is rooted in the Ferguson Uprising and one that continues to grow. In our ranks are public officials, clergy, local leaders, business owners, students, parents, and people of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds. Our protest is an act of love, but it is also a demand that elected leaders do more to ensure we no longer need to take to the streets. To absolve us of the fear that our loved ones will leave home and will not make it safely back. Both of us ran for office because the policies coming out of Jefferson City and Washington, D.C., not only fell short but failed to center the reality on the ground faced by so many people in our community — so many people who look like us and share our pain.  

SB 26 is a continuation of policies that fail to protect Black and brown communities. It must not pass the Missouri House of Representatives or be signed into law by Gov. Mike Parson. Rather than take up this bill, lawmakers should play a critical role in supporting and encouraging robust speech and protest. Ultimately, what gets lost in the consideration of this anti-democratic, anti-protest legislation is why we protest in the first place.  

We protest because the St. Louis Police Department leads the nation in police killings per capita, disproportionately killing Black people. Year after year after year. We’ve seen none of our demands met by our government. 

Rep. Rasheen Aldridge
Rep. Rasheen Aldridge

We protest because Black lives are not safe in Missouri. They weren’t safe in 2014 when an officer in Ferguson murdered Mike Brown, Jr. They weren’t safe in 2015 in Mississippi County when Tory Sanders got lost, ran out of gas, and was effectively tortured to death in a jail cell hours later. They weren’t safe in 2018 when Black people were 91 percent more likely to be pulled over by the police across the state — a number that has increased over the years. They weren’t safe in 2020 when police killed Donnie Sanders in Kansas City. They have never been safe under the violence of starvation wages that we disproportionately receive — wages that must be increased to at least $15. 

Some proponents of this legislation have said that it would keep protesters and the general public safe. But silencing dissent cements the status quo. And for Black people in Missouri, there is nothing more dangerous to our livelihoods than the status quo. If public safety is truly at the heart of this legislation, then the Missouri State Legislature must waste no time addressing the series of initiatives protesters and activists have proposed to remedy the cycles of violence that are so rampant in our state and in our communities. 

We invite members of the state legislature to engage with us — and our communities — in a good faith effort to build a better Missouri. We appeal to the fundamental constitutional values of free speech and free assembly as we implore our leaders and Missourians everywhere to reject SB 26 and, instead, focus on building a more robust and inclusive democracy that meets the needs of Black Missourians who are ready and eager for a chance to build strong communities and enact policies that will truly keep our families safe. The right to assemble is the bedrock of any healthy democracy, and it must be protected at all costs, not rolled back.