As vaccinations against COVID-19 increase and with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recently released relaxed outdoor masking standards for vaccinated people, the U.S. appears to be inching toward normalcy. Meanwhile, many state legislatures across the country are working to ensure that one aspect of our society does not return to normal — by criminalizing protest. Clearly jarred by the power and the depth of the protests against systemic racism and against police brutality that erupted in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis Police last year, right-wing, Republican-controlled state legislatures are passing laws specifically targeting dissent. At the same time, chillingly, many of these laws include provisions legalizing violence against protestors, granting immunity to people who drive their cars into crowds.
“These are really extreme laws,” the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law’s Nick Robinson said on the Democracy Now! news hour. “For example, in Florida, if you’re with 25 or more people or you’re obstructing traffic, it becomes a felony and an aggravated riot, punishable by 15 years in jail. ... There’s five years in jail if you deface a monument. If you tag a Confederate monument, it’s a super serious charge under the Florida bill.”
Robinson’s group is tracking these frightening legislative trends, with close to 100 anti-protest bills proposed nationwide and five already enacted since George Floyd’s murder. Florida’s 61-page “Combating Public Disorder” bill, signed into law by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis on April 19, vastly expands the definition of ‘riot’ to just three people, and denies people arrested for ‘rioting’ release on bail until after their first court appearance. It gives the governor veto power over municipalities seeking a reduction in police department budgets, and shields from civil liability anyone accused of causing “personal injury, wrongful death or property damage,” if those who they injure or kill were guilty of so-called “rioting.”
In Oklahoma, Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt has just signed an anti-protest bill into law that protects drivers who injure or kill protesters by running into them with their cars from both civil and criminal prosecution.
“It’s declaring open season. It’s a hunting license,” Susan Bro said on Democracy Now! Her daughter, Heather Heyer, was killed on August 12, 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia, while peacefully protesting against the violent, white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally. James Alex Fields Jr., a 24-year-old neo-Nazi, slammed his car into a crowd of anti-racist counter-protesters, killing Heather and injuring at least 35 others. Susan Bro now runs the Heather Heyer Foundation in her daughter’s memory, providing scholarships to students working for social justice.
Heather Heyer’s killer is currently serving two life sentences in prison. Susan Bro said she relives the lethal attack on her daughter every day:
“Heather’s friends were hurled into the air. The young gentleman whose shoe was seen dangling from the front bumper of the car as he retreats was Heather’s friend, Marcus Martin. He was two people behind her. He reached and moved [his fianc?e] Marissa out of the way. He’s cried over and over that he could not get to Heather. And I’ve just said, ‘Marcus, you can’t help that.’ I have a photograph of the split second before he hits Heather. I have seen footage of him hitting Heather, but my brain will not absorb it, even now. To say that that is not criminal, that that is not an offense — since when do we allow the public to become judge, jury and executioner? Because that’s what this amounts to: Let’s go hunt protesters.”
The current slew of anti-protest laws follows similar legislation prompted by the massive, indigenous-led protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016. Desperate to avoid similar mass protests, many states have enacted “pipeline protection” laws, criminalizing the type of nonviolent civil disobedience at the heart of the Standing Rock resistance. It isn’t only Republicans pushing these, either. Democratic Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly recently signed a law banning trespassing near pipelines and other “Critical Infrastructure Facilities.” (Kansas is one of 16 states where Republicans hold a veto-proof majority in the state legislature.)
The AP reported that the Kansas bill “was introduced at the request of the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers association.” Oil, gas and other polluting industries and trade groups are driving many of these anti-protest laws, with help from the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC.
Protest has driven every significant social change in this country. The right to dissent is enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. These dangerous anti-protest laws that are sweeping the country have to be resisted and overturned.