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Mitchell Sommers

We are a nation born from dissent.  That’s kind of a truism, of course. Right up there with, “I disagree with what you say, but I defend to the death your right ... blah, blah, blah.”  

And like most truisms, it isn’t completely accurate. It would be more accurate to say we are a nation born from an overreaction to dissent.

In 1773, when Samuel Adams and his Sons of Liberty — a catchier name than antifa, don’t you think? —dumped 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor, they were more destructive than athletes putting a knee on the ground in a football stadium, or even a bunch of nuns building a makeshift chapel on land that a large pipeline corporation wants. The Sons of Liberty certainly got King George’s attention, and the reaction was to punish dissent.

In 1774, Parliament passed what came to be known as the Intolerable Acts. Their purpose was to punish Massachusetts for dumping that tea.  They closed off Boston Harbor until all 342 chests were paid for. They stripped Massachusetts of much of its power, and allowed British soldiers who killed colonists to be tried in England, where presumably they’d get no punishment, rather than Massachusetts. (You may have thought this sort of thing only happened in Ferguson, Missouri.  You’d be wrong.)

The point is not, then, that dissent is what made America, but the reaction to that dissent is what made America. Samuel Adams and company didn’t surrender. They didn’t hand over a large check for 300 or so tea chests. 

Which brings us to Colin Kaepernick, free-agent quarterback, and state Sen. Scott Martin, a Republican from Martic Township, and what ties them to tons of soggy tea.

Kaepernick, you know. I said in a previous column I didn’t want to write about President Donald Trump all that much, and I’m going to try to stick to that. But Martin is a different story. 

Martin has introduced Senate Bill 754 that, if passed, would be pretty intolerable in its own right. That bill would make a protester responsible for public safety costs connected with a demonstration if the protester is convicted of a criminal offense — felony or misdemeanor.

Elizabeth Randol, the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union’s legislative director, as quoted in The Intercept, said that what is different about this bill is “that it expands [liability]…to allow the governmental entity, like, say, the State or …the National Guard…[or] the police department to determine … whether or not they want to recover additional costs” for someone committing a minor offense.

In other words, the goal is to financially break protesters, and to single out and crush people who engage in nonviolent dissent. It is a way to shut down opposition. Financial devastation is scary, and it leaves fewer marks than physical confrontation. But as we know, or should know as Americans, if you try to shut off dissent by impoverishing the dissenters, don’t be surprised if you end up with even more people angry at you than before.

Dissent — truly effective dissent —should be nonviolent, but nonviolent doesn’t mean comfortable. Peaceful doesn’t mean warm and fuzzy. And just because dissent risks overreaction by a king, a president, or a Republican state senator in Lancaster County, doesn’t mean government actors should give in to that temptation.

Samuel Adams didn’t call his band of followers the Sons of Quiet, Well-Mannered Liberty. Dissent without at least being a little bit in-your-face is likely going to be very ephemeral dissent.

(A word here about certain tiki-torch-toting white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia. When you come spoiling for a physical fight, you give up that whole First Amendment thing. So don’t wrap yourselves in it. James Madison would not be amused.)

Whether it’s the president threatening NFL players, or legislators backing pipeline companies, we as a country should know better than to go down this road. Because the Sons and Daughters of Liberty are everywhere. They are us.

Mitchell Sommers, an attorney practicing in Lancaster and Ephrata, is fiction editor for Philadelphia Stories, a quarterly literary magazine. Twitter: @MitchSommers. The opinions expressed are his own.