As demonstrators gathered earlier this month at the Kansas Statehouse to call for Medicaid expansion, we saw a tense situation handled admirably by law enforcement.
The situation could have easily gone another way. After all, tensions are high over the Legislature’s failure so far this session to expand Medicaid. And after recent coronavirus-related closures, we haven’t seen any added urgency on the issue from lawmakers.
So protesters gathered to make their voices heard. They blocked off the Senate entrances. And that’s when officials faced a choice. They could have gone in forcefully, knocking over people and dragging them away screaming. They could have escalated an emotional situation.
But they took a different tack.
In the words of Topeka Capital-Journal reporters Sherman Smith and Tim Carpenter: “KHP officers at the direction of Tom Day, director of legislative services in the Capitol, marched protesters to a ground-floor holding area. None of the individuals removed from the third floor was handcuffed, arrested or cited for trespassing or disorderly conduct, but KHP plans to forward information on the incident to the district attorney in Shawnee County.”
“We wanted to make sure we’re not violating anybody’s civil rights, their First Amendment rights. Yet, this still is a place of business,” said Kansas Highway Patrol public resource officer Donald Hughes.
That’s right. They showed restraint. And that’s the kind of approach Kansas needs.
Free expression is a cornerstone of our democracy. Protesters should never be seen as an enemy. They, like lawmakers, are trying to do what they believe is the best for the people of Kansas.
Senate President Susan Wagle should understand how her blockade of the critical legislation is affecting Kansans. If that means a few delays in doing Senate business, so be it. And manhandling protesters — making their treatment the story, rather than their calls for action — is counterproductive.
That’s not to say that law enforcement officials should be advocating for a policy, mind you. It’s just that their role is to ensure smooth functioning of a public building. And sometimes that means you allow the public to express itself.
The fate of Medicaid expansion remains sadly cloudy. With the Legislature racing to complete a budget and head home for social distancing, much that could have been accomplished this session remains undone.
But lawmakers will be back, sooner or later, and the issues that prompted the Senate blockade will still be there.