Pushing Back on Anti-Protest Legislation
In recent weeks and months, there have been multiple written articles that have pointed to the wave of new anti-protesting bills introduced in state legislatures since the end of 2016. The Intercept, Washington Post, AlterNet, Democracy Now!, and other news outlets have provided overviews of the types of bills under consideration, the potential chilling effect on protests, and the unconstitutional nature of these measures.
Republican lawmakers in 19 states have introduced legislation that attempts to criminalize and penalize protesting in various ways. Many states are drafting bills to increase fines and jail sentences for protesters obstructing traffic (Minnesota, Washington, South Dakota, Indiana, Florida, Mississippi, Iowa), tampering with or trespassing on infrastructure such as railways and pipelines (Colorado, Oklahoma), picketing (Michigan, Arkansas), wearing masks (Missouri), or refusing to leave an “unlawful protest” (Virginia). Particularly alarming are bills removing liability from automobile drivers who “accidentally” hit and kill protesters (North Dakota, Tennessee, Florida).
A bill in Indiana initially instructed police to clear protesters from highways by “any means necessary.” Other legislation has proposed labeling protests as “economic terrorism” (Washington, North Carolina), charging costs of policing to protesters and organizers (Minnesota), allowing businesses to sue individuals protesting them (Michigan, Colorado), and using anti-racketeering laws to seize assets of protesters (Arizona). A bill in Oregon would require public community colleges to expel students convicted of participating in a “violent riot.”
Should any of these new laws become enacted, the result could necessarily create a whole new level of hyper-vigilance among public defenders and our support staff since we are often seen as the entrenched front-line defenders of constitutional rights. But what makes this legislative activity more alarming now, is that the spate of new bills targeting protesters in the new Trump-era of politics will necessarily bring with it the current conditions that are favorable to repression of First Amendment activity. Taken together, Trump’s three executive orders on policing, the large number of state legislatures dominated by Republicans, the pro-policing and pro-business attitude of the current administration, and the constant and growing spontaneous demonstrations protesting Trump all combine to produce an atmosphere in which many powerful interests have a stake in suppressing mass dissent.
Please, when you have the opportunity, consider: 1) Emailing your state representative and urging a no vote; 2) Calling your state representative and urging a no vote; 3) Writing a “letter to the editor” of your local paper to urge a no vote.
Many of us in public defense are among the best educated, most experienced, most connected, and sometimes the most creatively resourced people in the legal arena. (And, yes I actually believe that.) It cannot be that we have nothing with which to stand against the forces of nationalism, racism, misogyny and deceit. It cannot be that we lack resources with which to protect the people and the values we say we believe in. At the least, and to the last, we stand together with the poor and the vulnerable because everyone still matters.