August 26, 2020

The far right in Idaho—which seemingly now includes its state Legislature—has a rule: Free speech for me, none for thee. Protesters from the right are welcome with open arms, but protesters from the left get thrown in jail.

That became manifest Monday in Boise when a horde of anti-COVID-19 restriction activists led by antigovernment figure Ammon Bundy broke into the chambers of the Statehouse, shoving their way past state troopers, pounding on doors, shouting and breaking doors and windows along the way, and then invading committee hearing rooms. But not only was no one arrested, state officials decided to accommodate them. It starkly contrasted with the scene a few years ago, when peaceful protesters seeking equal rights for LGBTQ people were arrested en masse for standing silently in the halls of the building.

Monday marked the opening day of the special legislative session called by Gov. Brad Little to deal with complications created by the pandemic—mainly civil liability issues and concerns raised by county clerks about absentee ballots and a lack of polling workers. However, those were picayune affairs compared to the agenda of the protesters, who demanded an end to the state of emergency declared by Little in March.

Bundy—who has been the primary figure in the far-right resistance in Idaho to pandemic-related measures—led the crowd of entirely maskless protesters at the Statehouse steps, who began chanting “Let us in!” after access to the gallery seating in both Senate and House chambers was restricted to half-capacity and seats quickly filled up. First they shoved their way past Idaho State Police troopers standing guard, then they banged on doors and windows demanding entry past the gallery doors on the fourth floor. One of the men, according to the Associated Press, was carrying an assault-style rifle.

Rather than enforce the rules and eject the protesters, Republican House Speaker Scott Bedke chose to allow the gallery to fully open. Lawmakers on the floor pleaded with the protesters to stop the chants and be respectful. Eventually, the crowd quieted down after all the seats had filled to capacity.

“I want to always try to avoid violence,” Bedke told the Associated Press later. “My initial reaction of course was to clear the fourth floor. But we had room for at least some more.”

That was hardly the end of it. As NPR’s James Dawson reported, the protesters eventually made their way into committee rooms, where they similarly ignored distancing rules and filled the rooms to capacity. They defaced signs designating empty seats, and mocked a Democratic legislator who chose to leave the meeting because of the violations.

No citations were issued by Idaho State Police, nor are any arrest warrants planned for the property destruction and vandalism.

Gov. Little tweeted out his thanks to the State Patrol, Boise Police, and Capitol security forces afterward “for their efforts in preserving a safe and productive special legislative session.”

Back in 2014, activists tried to get the Idaho Legislature to add the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the state’s anti-discrimination statute, and organized several protests at the Statehouse in Boise, all of which were peaceful. Over 150 people were arrested over the course the next several weeks at “Add the Words” protests, including a former state senator for whom the Senate voted to change its rules just so she could be arrested. Most were arrested while standing silently in the halls.

Idaho is currently experiencing an ongoing wave of COVID-19 infections, and currently has one of the highest rates of infections per capita, though it has been declining recently.

Bundy boasted on Facebook afterwards: “They would not let us in to attend the legislative session. So we did what all people must do. We pushed our way in!”

Published with permission of Daily Kos.

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