Hurricane Harvey laid waste to Houston and areas of the Texas and Louisiana coasts, leaving many residents dependent on the same taxpayer-funded state emergency aid they — like all tax-paying Americans — paid dutifully for years under the assumption those most in need would not be utterly devastated in times of disaster.
Harvey continues to be a disaster. But, for residents of at least one Texas town, receiving governmental relief comes with quite the catch — one forcing them, in no uncertain terms, into United States foreign policy — since they must certify allegiance before funds will flow.
Allegiance, that is, not to the United States — as horrendously fascistic as that would, itself, be. No, hurricane victims in the small Lone Star State town of Dickinson have to vow allegiance to Israel, certifying that they will not — throughout the entire duration of their assistance agreement with Texas — boycott the aforementioned interminable U.S. ally, occupier of Palestine, and established abuser of human rights. Israel.
And they may not be alone for long — no matter how unconstitutional the premise for the appalling clause in the City of Dickinson’s Hurricane Harvey Repair Grant Application and Agreement — since its nonsensical placement there can be blamed on nascent Texas law mandating state agencies not contract with any entities boycotting Israel. Residents would be acting as ‘independent contractors’ in the capacity outlined by the application — thus, would be theoretically obligated to the same restriction.
Other states, albeit unaffected by this particular natural disaster, are codifying similarly authoritarian legislation.
Make no mistake about this, anyone refusing to agree to the following plainly stated condition will not be considered for assistance:
“Verification not to Boycott Israel. By executing this agreement below, the applicant verifies that the applicant: (1) does not boycott Israel; and (2) will not boycott Israel during the term of this agreement.”
This is a serious affront to protections in the Constitution, according to the American Civil Liberties Union and other legal critics, as well as supporters of the human rights and political pressure movement known as Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS), which advocates for the rights of Palestinians through mass, nonviolent eponymous actions — the former of which, through massive popularity worldwide, has purportedly been so efficacious as to spawn such legislation, such as the offending piece in question.
While diverting into the explosively contentious issue that comprises the Israeli occupation and settlement of Palestine tempts the politically active, focusing on the Constitution-trampling aspect of the Dickinson anti-BDS clause is infinitely more imperative — supporters and detractors have a common enemy in authoritarian overreach by the State.
“The city of Dickinson, Texas is requiring people applying for Hurricane Harvey aid to promise not to boycott Israel. This is unconstitutional,” the ACLU tweeted Friday, expounding slightly, later,
“Political boycotts are protected by the First Amendment, and the government cannot condition benefits on people giving up their rights.”
Political boycotts are protected by the First Amendment, and the government cannot condition benefits on people giving up their rights. https://t.co/LpKLHBR7Ao
— ACLU (@ACLU) October 19, 2017
In no uncertain terms, laws placing strictures on political — indeed, any — speech, violate the Constitution.
“The First Amendment protects Americans’ right to boycott,” ACLU of Texas Legal Director Andre Segura said of the city’s restriction, “and the government cannot condition hurricane relief or any other public benefit on a commitment to refrain from protected political expression. Dickinson’s requirement is an egregious violation of the First Amendment, reminiscent of McCarthy-era loyalty oaths requiring Americans to disavow membership in the Communist party and other forms of ‘subversive’ activity.”
As the ACLU notes, the Dickinson application appears derived from the controversial anti-BDS state law; but that doesn’t make the provision any less illegal or in violation of citizens’ rights, as the “Supreme Court ruled decades ago that political boycotts are protected by the First Amendment, and other decisions have established that the government may not require individuals to sign a certification regarding their political expression in order to obtain employment, contracts, or other benefits.”
City officials at first remained tight-lipped against an onslaught of furious communications inundated offices after news of the anti-BDS clause spread like wildfire online.
“It’s completely unreasonable,” Ayesha Khan, a UTHealth doctoral student who has assisted and organized Harvey relief — and who also plays an active role with BDS — told Huffington Post.
“This can prolong the time it will take to rebuild homes. It’s institutionalized in a way that can impact families that are still homeless.”
But, Dickinson Mayor Julie Masters ultimately spoke with HuffPost, explaining the city indeed enacted the disputatious Israel agreement in its application to comply with Texas law — even if she harbored misgivings about its scope and true message.
“God, this kind of feels like it’s infringing on free speech,” Masters recalled having astutely pondered when the pro-Israel rule’s inclusion was recommended by the Dickinson city attorney.
Indeed, in the case of NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co. in 1982, the Supreme Court ruled the former’s boycott of a the latter, white-owned business fell under the same protections of free association and free speech enshrined in the Constitution.
Remarking glowingly of the boycott’s nonviolent means, the court held, in part, the NAACP acted justly, and,
“Through exercise of their First Amendment rights of speech, assembly, association, and petition, rather than through riot or revolution, petitioners sought to bring about political, social, and economic change.
“While States have broad power to regulate economic activities, there is no comparable right to prohibit peaceful political activity such as that found in the boycott in this case.”
Given the long-cemented and established protection of protest through boycott, and the tandem categorical restriction on imposed political ideology through legislation, it seems the Texas anti-BDS, pro-Israel law — and doppelgangers, like one in Kansas, over which the ACLU has already filed litigation — faces an acerbic if prolonged battle in court.
Whether or not the current political atmosphere — with its deliberate shift toward authoritarianism — will fall in line with the Constitution or the jackboot of coercive policy remains, for now, unknown.
In the meantime, some Texans wishing to receive aid to recover from Hurricane Harvey must decide between their conscience and their survival.
Image: Public Domain.