Diversity Dialogue: Don’t be idle as our democracy slides toward aristocracy

By Donna M. Chiera

In March, I wrote a blog post on how GOP state legislators realized changing demographics threaten their chances of winning statewide and federal elections. Rather than addressing and adapting their positions to meet the needs of their constituents, they are passing laws to suppress the rights of the voters in these states.

At the time, I thought: How much more damage can they do to chip away at our democracy, to silence the voice of their opposition?

At the same time, leaders from both parties are watching and publicly criticizing the Russian government for poisoning opposition leaders and arresting peaceful protesters who support Alexei Navalny. However, here at home, in GOP-led states, laws are being passed to target protesters and eliminate their rights to protest safely.

While we were all focused on the protests highlighting the brutal murder of George Floyd, these legislatures were meeting quietly to craft these laws. Again, instead of looking at and addressing the issues that are driving folks out into the street, for them it was easier and politically self-serving to create a tool to silence the voice of their opposition.

In Oklahoma and Iowa, drivers who use their vehicles to strike and injure protesters in public streets now have immunity from prosecution. In Indiana, anyone convicted of unlawful assembly is barred from holding state employment, including running for public office. In Minnesota, a bill was crafted that would prohibit those convicted of unlawful protesting from receiving student loans, unemployment benefits or housing assistance. 

Florida not only crafted legislation, it passed and was signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, toughening existing laws that govern public disorder and creating harsh new levels of infractions. The new law established a felony crime of “aggravated rioting” that carries a sentence up to 15 years. You can be charged with “mob intimidation,” a new category that makes it unlawful for a person assembled with two or more other persons and acting with common intent, to use force or threaten to use imminent force to compel or induce or attempt to compel or induce another person to do or refrain from doing any act or to assume, abandon or maintain a particular viewpoint against his or her will.     

This is happening here and now in the United States of America. These types of legislation are being sponsored by the same people who are against the federal government placing common-sense regulation on firearms because it is a constitutional right. But they are turning around trying to suppress voting rights, freedom of speech and the right to assemble. It amazes me when they wave the Constitution and the Bill of Rights when it supports their agenda.

Don’t be naïve: There is an effort to move us from a democracy to an aristocracy, government ruled by a small class of privileged individuals. Imposing the will of the minority over the will of the majority. Recounts in Arizona by the Republicans in power to audit for a fourth time the results of the 2020 election in two categories, the presidency and the U.S. Senate seat, both won by Democrats and only in one county that happened to flip from red to blue. The audit is being done by the Cyber Ninjas, a company run by a person associated with QAnon. Michigan has also announced it hired the “Ninjas” to do an audit of their presidential election results.

Headed to the U.S. Supreme Court?  

Eliminating a woman’s right to choose, LBGTQ rights, workers’ rights, immigrant rights — the list goes on. There are legal challenges to all of these initiatives, and many of them will end up in the U.S. Supreme Court, which may or may not interpret these efforts as a threat to our democracy. I, like many, thought this would all end with the inauguration of President Joe Biden. We were wrong. This election made many politicians realize our country is changing. The voices rising up are a symphony of many races and many languages. Their fear of not being able to control the masses in this new era is resulting in efforts to bring us back to a time where “everyone knew their place and stayed in their lane.”  

These ideas did not just pop into the heads of legislators in the past two months. They have been there, hidden deep inside for years. President Donald Trump’s actions gave them permission; now, out of the Oval Office and from his Mar-a-Lago property in Florida, he is encouraging them to act.

We can stand on the sidelines and watch because, after all, it can’t happen in Jersey — that is, until a majority of these simple-minded, flawed individuals from around the country become a majority in Congress and it becomes federal law. Or we can log on to AFT Votes and see how we can support our colleagues in the states on the front lines.

To end with a musical reference, will it be “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke or “Bye, bye, Miss American Pie,” from the chorus in Don McLean’s signature song? Collectively, we will determine the outcome, and that will occur when we do what Bob Marley sang: “Get up, stand up / stand up for your rights / get up, stand up / don’t give up the fight.”

Donna M. Chiera is the president of the American Federation of Teachers New Jersey, a vice president for the American Federation of Teachers and a vice president of the New Jersey State AFL-CIO executive board.