As protesters have rallied across the U.S. over the past year against police-perpetrated violence and brutality, Republicans in state legislatures have been busy cooking up anti-protest laws. Reporting has found that, just in the 2021 legislative session, Republicans have introduced 81 bills in 34 states aimed at suppressing protests.
This is double the number of anti-protest laws that have been filed in any other year, Elly Page, senior legal adviser at the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, which tracks protest laws, told The New York Times. Many of the bills are a direct attack on the right to protest, as set by the First Amendment.
The bills range from criminalizing protests to making it easier for people to harm protesters without consequences.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday signed a bill into law that grants protections for people who drive their car into a protesting crowd, potentially injuring the protesters, and penalizes those participating in uprisings.
The penalties are exceedingly harsh: The bill makes “aggravated rioting” and blocking traffic on a highway a felony. Those convicted of a felony in Florida get their voting rights taken away. Many other states like Oregon, Arizona and Alabama are also considering bills seeking harsher penalties for those who block traffic as part of a protest.
Republican lawmakers in Oklahoma and Iowa have passed similar protections for drivers who strike and harm protesters. In Alabama, legislators are considering a bill that allows people to kill anyone on their property as long as they “reasonably believe” that that person might attempt to trespass.
Other bills seek to take rights away from protesters in ways other than those outlined in the Florida bill. In Minnesota, where last year’s protests against George Floyd’s murder originated, the GOP is trying to make it so that those convicted on protest-related charges are ineligible for many types of government programs, like housing assistance, food stamps and student loans — programs on which many poor residents and students rely.
And yet other bills are focused on labeling protests or protesters with negative-sounding terms like “terroristic” or “riots.” Several bills, like the ones in Alabama and Georgia, seek to expand the definition of “riot” or “unlawful assembly” and seek harsh penalties for those convicted of protest-related charges.
The anti-protest bills seek to worsen a system that already allows for protesters, especially those on the left, to be treated harshly, as countless videos and activist accounts showed during last summer’s protests. They are almost undoubtedly filed as backlash to those protests, which both the right and center painted as violent, despite the fact that it was police officers who started and perpetuated the violence.
The bills, if passed into law, have the potential to seriously harm the Black Lives Matter movement that activists have painstakingly uplifted and fought for through blood, sweat and tears over the years. As activists and progressives have called for fundamental systemic change in the face of police-perpetrated murders, Republicans are seeking to stifle the growing movement, which threatens their power.
“The new Florida anti-protest law that penalizes protests puts a formidable obstacle in the path to this kind of systemic change by subverting the movements that have been the principal catalysts for change,” explains Barbara Ransby for Truthout. “It is unimaginable how such a law could be fairly enforced. Conceivably, a political argument on a street corner could be cause for arrest. If this is not censorship, I don’t know what is.”
Many have noted that the spirit of these bills is contrary to the First Amendment rights of free speech and assembly. “You have just declared war on the First Amendment in the state of Florida,” said Democratic Florida State Sen. Shevrin Jones after DeSantis signed the anti-protest bill.
There is also a glaring double standard in what issues are okay to protest about in Republicans’ eyes, and what types of crowds Republicans consider dangerous. While Republicans spewed lies about the Black Lives Matter protests for racial justice throughout last year, they downplayed the actual violence on display from supporters of former President Donald Trump on January 6.