Leonard Pitts: First Amendment has no meaning ... unless

(Alejandro A. Alvarez/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP) Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw, left, and other officers attend to Associated Press photographer Matt Rourke after he was assaulted while touring the business district with Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and police officers at N. Broad Street and Erie Avenue in Philadelphia on Thursday, June 4, 2020.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

— The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

Those words have no meaning.

Not until or unless you and I agree they do. After all, neither the parchment on which the promises are written nor the Supreme Court that interprets them has any means to compel our obeisance. The words have force because we choose to be bound by them.

That's the basis of a free society. A traffic cop has power to tell us when to go and when to stop because we agree she does; if every driver refused to obey, what could she do? A piece of paper with Abraham Lincoln's picture on it can be exchanged for a 12-pack of Coke or two gallons of gas, because we agree that it can; but if ever we don't, the paper is worthless.

When people cease abiding by the unspoken pacts that bind us, a free society cannot function. That’s what a riot is — a mass of people rescinding their agreement to obey the laws. For all its fire and fury, though, a riot is a localized affair that eventually exhausts itself.

A far more ominous and far-reaching withdrawal from our social covenant has come in response to that unrest. Meaning the 138 police attacks, most of them deliberate, that had occurred as of Wednesday against reporters reporting on the uprising. We are indebted to Nick Waters of Bellingcat, an investigative journalism website, for keeping track.

The victims include a reporter in Louisville who was targeted with pepper bullets, and a CBS News audio engineer in Minneapolis shot with rubber bullets. A photographer in Minneapolis, who may or may not have been deliberately targeted, was shot and blinded in one eye. And an Australian news crew was roughed up outside the White House Monday, as government goons — the description is apt — wielded gas, flash-bangs and rubber bullets against protesters so that Donald Trump could shamble up to a church he has seldom attended and hold up a book — the Bible — he has almost certainly never read. In so doing, they shredded four of the five guarantees in the Amendment quoted above.

You can lay much of the blame for this squarely at Trump's feet. His nonstop demonizing of journalists — his "fake news" and "enemy of the people" mantras — has certainly exacerbated and emboldened this misconduct.

Not to imply a journalist's bruises are more important than a welder's or a teacher's. They aren't. But the willingness of police to stomp on the First Amendment while dealing with someone who has a platform and visibility, sometimes live on the air, should raise an obvious question. If that's how they treat a journalist with the world watching, how do you imagine they treat the welder or the teacher when the world is not?

After things quiet down, there will likely be apologies for all this, civil suits, and court rulings affirming that this has been a monstrous breach of the First Amendment. To be sanguine about that is to miss the point.

If some cop denies you a constitutional right, what's your immediate recourse? Truth is, you have none. The Constitution is just a 233-year-old piece of parchment whose words have no meaning until or unless we give it. And too many police feel far too free to decline. Yes, it's well and good to have your freedoms vindicated after the fact.

But if you don't have your rights in the moment you need them, it's fair to say you don't have them at all.

Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald. lpitts@miamiherald.com