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Professor Tabatha Abu El-Haj Cites Philadelphia’s Tradition of Disruptive Protest in Inquirer Op-Ed

Tabatha Abu El-Haj

July 15, 2016

With the Democratic National Convention scheduled to begin, sanctioned and unsanctioned protests should be permitted if they are non-violent, Professor Tabatha Abu El-Haj wrote in an essay published in The Philadelphia Inquirer on July 14.

“The political power of a march arises from its ability to disrupt,” Abu El-Haj wrote, citing protests such as a 1795 Independence Day march in Philadelphia that included the burning in effigy of a diplomat from the Washington administration who forged a secret treaty with Great Britain.

“Processions, public meetings and protest rarely resemble our idealized conceptions of public discourse - reasoned disquisitions on difficult public policy choices,” Abu El-Haj wrote. “Yet the founders recognized their importance, especially for those unsatisfied with electoral politics, and included a separate clause in the First Amendment to protect them.”

Permits for public assembly were not required until the late 19th century, Abu El-Haj said, noting that political gatherings were not regulated in Philadelphia until Pennsylvania passed a law in 1867 that banned nighttime political parades 10 days prior to a general election.

Abu El-Haj, an authority on constitutional law and the American political process, praised Philadelphia city officials for downgrading low-level crimes such as failure to disperse but urged police to tolerate demonstrators’ non-violent disorderly conduct.  

While the constitution does not protect violence against people or property, she said, “tolerance of disorder short of violence is essential.”