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Leslie Gabel-Brett Headshot

Occupy the First Amendment

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I mean, let's really occupy the First Amendment, inhabit every corner of it: freedom of expression, of religion, of a free press, the right to petition the government for redress of our grievances, and to peaceably assemble. We have to occupy this amendment and hold our ground.

Our nation was born of protest and has continuously been made better by it. Emancipation, suffrage, fair labor practices, civil rights -- all were won or advanced by people joining together in dissent, their ideas and lawful actions shielded by our Constitution. Ours has never been a perfect union; thank goodness people have always said so and fought to make it better.

In 1957, a federal employee named Frank Kameny was fired from his job because he was gay. He courageously fought back by bringing legal challenges against the discriminatory actions of his government. His legal challenges were unsuccessful, but he also did something that gay people in this country had not yet done: he stood outside and picketed in the streets.

A decade after his brave protest, when the New York City police raided a gay bar and tried to use their authority to harass and evict the patrons, gay and transgender people stood their ground and said "no" -- igniting the Stonewall Riots that came to be seen as the start of the modern gay rights movement. As recently as 2009, the Atlanta Police Department raided the Atlanta Eagle gay bar and violated the patrons' constitutional rights (the Fourth Amendment prohibitions against warrantless search and seizure, this time). The patrons, a local attorney and Lambda Legal fought back.

The First Amendment protects expression that is communal and organized, like marches, demonstrations, and occupying public spaces, just as it protects expression that is deeply personal. When a transgender woman walks down a street, her manner of dress and the way she carries her body and speaks is her personal expression of identity, and no police officer or government official may limit or penalize her for it.

We are in another moment in American history -- and there have been many -- when the right to challenge and protest are under attack. Tear gas, rubber bullets, and pepper spray may be "non-lethal" police instruments, but they are also remote-control-style weapons that hurt and brutalize people. Police officers are not permitted to walk up to non-violent protesters and kick and punch them; nor should they be permitted to shoot or spray them with something that causes tremendous pain and injury. They are also not allowed to raid LGBT bars for no legitimate reason, or stop, frisk, and harass transgender people who are breaking no laws.

Police abuse and misconduct weaken our constitutional freedoms. If a population becomes bullied or intimidated out of exercising rights offered on paper, those rights effectively cease to exist. Every time people watch peaceful protesters getting pepper-sprayed or hear that an Occupy protester suffered brain damage and almost died after being shot with a rubber bullet, more become fearful of exercising their rights.

And when LGBT people are attacked, harassed and arrested without cause by police while in a bar or on the street, the message is loud and clear: your government does not want you to express your identity and freely live your life and will use its authority to enforce your silence. Lambda Legal has made it a priority to challenge police and government misconduct, because we need to hold these powerful actors accountable for mistreating LGBT people and those with HIV.

Kameny recently passed away, but he lived long enough to see how his protests were made louder and stronger by hundreds of thousands of others protesting discrimination against LGBT people and demanding justice. Whenever people stand up, join together and protest injustice, we have another chance as a nation to see where some are favored and others harmed -- and to do something about it. This is what democracy looks like.