GOP Bills targets protesters (and absolves motorists who hit them)
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Republican lawmakers in Oklahoma and Iowa have passed bills granting immunity to drivers whose vehicles strike and injure protesters on the streets.
A Republican proposal in Indiana would ban anyone convicted of illegal assembly from holding state employment, including elective office. A Minnesota bill would prohibit those convicted of illegally protesting from receiving student loans, unemployment benefits or housing assistance.
And in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis this week signed sweeping legislation that strengthened existing laws governing public unrest and created a new level of harsh offenses – a bill he called “the most important element. more powerful against looting, riots and law enforcement. legislation in the country.
The measures are part of a wave of new anti-protest laws, sponsored and supported by Republicans, in the 11 months since the Black Lives Matter protests swept the country after the death of George Floyd. The Minneapolis policeman who killed Mr. Floyd, Derek Chauvin, was convicted of murder and manslaughter on Tuesday, a cathartic end to weeks of tension.
But as Democrats took to Mr Floyd’s death last May to highlight racism in policing and other forms of social injustice, Republicans responded to a summer of protests by proposing a series of new punitive measures governing the right to legally assemble. GOP lawmakers in 34 states introduced 81 anti-protest bills during the 2021 legislative session – more than twice as many proposals as any other year, according to Elly Page, senior legal adviser at the International Center for Law non-profit. , which follows legislation restricting the right to protest.
Some, like Mr. DeSantis, call them “riot” bills, confusing the right to demonstrate peacefully with the riots and looting that have sometimes resulted from such protests.
The laws convey the hyperbolic message Republicans have pushed in the 11 months since Black Lives Matter’s protests against racial injustice swept the country: that Democrats tolerate the violent and criminal actions of those protesting against it. racial injustice. And the legislation underscores how supporting law enforcement personnel and opposing protests has become the bedrock of GOP orthodoxy and a likely pillar of the platform the party will adopt mid-year. course for next year.
“This is consistent with the general tendency of lawmakers to respond to powerful and persuasive protests by seeking to silence them rather than engaging with the message of the protests,” said Vera Eidelman, an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union. “If anything, the lesson of the last year, and decades, isn’t that we need to empower police and prosecutors, it’s that they are abusing the tools they have. already.
Laws already exist to punish riots, and civil rights activists fear the new bills violate the rights of legal assembly and free speech protected by the First Amendment. The overwhelming majority of Black Lives Matter’s nationwide protests last summer were peaceful – more than 96% involved no property damage or injury to police, according to the Washington Post, which also found that police or counter-demonstrators often incited violence.
Most protests across Florida last summer were also peaceful, although a few in Miami, Tampa and Jacksonville produced episodes of violence, including the burning of a police car and a store. sporting goods. Yet as they passed the bill Mr. DeSantis enacted, Republican leaders expressed contempt for cities that cut police budgets and tolerate protesters disrupting business and traffic.
“We weren’t going to allow Florida to become Seattle,” said Chris Sprowls, a Republican who is the president of Florida House, mentioning the cities where protests lasted for months last year and where protesters were. are frequently confronted with the police. “We weren’t going to allow Florida to become Portland.”
Florida law imposes tougher sentences for existing public order offenses, turning misdemeanors into misdemeanors, creating new misdemeanors and preventing defendants from being released on bail until they appear before a judge . A January investigation by Ryan D. Tyson, a Republican pollster, found broad support in the state for tougher penalties against protesters “who damage personal and business property or assault law enforcement.”
But the law goes further. If a local government chooses to cut its law enforcement budget – to “fund the police,” as DeSantis put it – the measure provides a new mechanism for a prosecutor or city commissioner or commissioner to act. county to appeal the reduction to the state.
The law also increases the penalties for the demolition of monuments, including Confederate ones, making the offense a second-degree felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison. This makes it easier for anyone who injures a protester, for example by entering a crowd, to escape civil liability.
State Senator Shevrin D. Jones, Broward County Democrat and outspoken critic of the law, noted that Mr DeSantis was quick to point out how necessary the bill was the day after the deadly riot on the 6th January at the United States Capitol, but had made no mention of the event when signing the bill on Monday, focusing only on the summer protests.
It was proof, he said, that bills to punish protesters disproportionately target people of color. “This bill is fundamentally racist,” Mr. Jones said.
So far, three bills to limit protests have been passed: Florida’s and new Arkansas and Kansas laws that target protesters seeking to disrupt pipelines. Others are expected to arrive soon.
In Oklahoma, Republican lawmakers last week sent a law to Gov. Kevin Stitt that would criminalize illegally blocking a public highway and grant immunity to drivers who strike and injure protesters in a riot. Last June, a van carrying a horse trailer drove through a crowd of Black Lives Matter protesters on a Tulsa highway, injuring several people and leaving one paralyzed. The driver, who said he accelerated because he feared for the safety of his family, has not been charged.
The bill’s author, State Senator Rob Standridge, said the Tulsa incident prompted him to seek immunity for drivers hitting protesters. He said on Tuesday he was not aware of any drivers allegedly charged after hitting protesters in Oklahoma. “My hope is that this law is never used,” he said in an interview. Carly Atchison, spokesperson for Mr Stitt, declined to say whether he would sign the bill, which was passed by a non-vetoed majority.
Tiffany Crutcher, whose twin brother Terence Crutcher was shot and killed in 2016 by a Tulsa police officer who was later acquitted of a manslaughter charge, said Oklahoma’s proposal represents the Republicans’ efforts to expand the Trump administration’s hostility toward people of color.
Dr Crutcher said she was confident that if Mr Stitt signed the legislation it would be enforced in harsher terms against those protesting racial injustice than against white protesters protesting for gun rights or against abortion.
“We all know over the past four years we’ve seen white supremacy, bigotry and racism show its ugly head in so many forms,” said Dr Crutcher, who quit his job as a physiotherapist to work. for racial justice after death. of his brother. “It is the continuation of the Trump administration that has shown us every day that black lives don’t matter.”
While Republican lawmakers present anti-protest legislation as support for the police, law enforcement does not necessarily support the new proposals.
The Iowa bills, part of a law enforcement program proposed by Gov. Kim Reynolds, would deprive local governments of state funding if cities and counties funded their own budgets to law enforcement – something no jurisdiction in Iowa has sought to do. And state lawmakers cut a proposal from Ms Reynolds to track police arrest data by race.
State police departments have not asked for new tools to crack down on protesters or grant immunity to drivers hitting protesters walking the streets, said Kellie Paschke, a lobbyist for the Iowa Peace Officers Association. , a police coordination group.
In Kentucky, where protests following Breonna Taylor’s murder by police lasted for months last year, the state Senate passed a bill that would criminalize insulting or taunting a policeman with “insulting or mocking” words or gestures that would “” have a direct tendency to provoke a violent response. The measure would have required that those arrested on such a charge be held in jail for at least 48 hours – a provision that does not automatically apply to those arrested for murder, rape or arson in Kentucky.
Although legislation has died in State House due to bipartisan concerns about free speech, the bill’s main sponsor, State Senator Danny Carroll, a Republican who is a retired police officer, said he plans to table it again in the next session. Mr Carroll said the bill was necessary to keep the community safe and protect law enforcement personnel.
“They are constantly under attack,” he said, noting that decades ago, police could “arrest someone for cursing them”, until court rulings curtailed those powers. police.
In the hours after Mr. DeSantis signed the Florida bill on Monday, as the nation awaited Chauvin’s verdict, progressive community organizers in the state expressed concern over how the forces of the The order could react to any manifestation resulting from the decision. Moné Holder, senior director of advocacy and programs for Florida Rising, a social justice organization, said his team had spent a lot of time educating activists about their rights under their new law.
“It’s a tactic to silence our voices,” she said.
After the verdict was announced, she remained concerned about how the police would treat community members if they chose to gather outside, to be together after an emotional year.
“To console yourself, to cry, to cry,” she said. “The fact that we have to think twice is embarrassing. “
Dan Levin contributed reporting.