Over the past 10 months, protesters fighting for racial equality have faced challenges from police departments and governments. Now, they face more challenges, as state and federal lawmakers introduce legislation aimed at cracking down on demonstrators.
The majority of them, on the Republican front, say this is in direct response to violent riots the country witnessed following the death of George Floyd. Some have even used the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 as grounds to create harsher penalties for protesters. However, some activists say it puts a target on the backs of Black demonstrators, tries to silence their movement for justice, and is a ploy to put more protesters in prison.
Florida introduces ‘anti-mob’ bill
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis made an announcement that sparked anger among protesters in the state of Florida. In September, the Republican governor announced the “Combatting Violence, Disorder and Looting and Law Enforcement Protection Act,” otherwise known as the “anti-mob” bill.
His initial proposal had three major components––creating new criminal offenses for rioters and looters; increasing penalties for those who assault a police officer; and measures that would punish municipalities who defunded their police departments.
One of the most controversial elements that Mr. DeSantis proposed included making it a third degree felony to block “traffic during an unpermitted protest, demonstration or violent or disorderly assembly” and also, not making a driver liable for injury or death caused if “fleeing for safety from a mob.”
Upon announcing the bill, Mr. DeSantis said, “Our right to peacefully assemble is one of our most cherished as Americans, but throughout the country we’ve seen that right being taken advantage of by professional agitators, bent on sowing disorder and causing mayhem in our cities.
I will not allow this kind of violence to occur here in Florida. The legislation announced today will not only combat rioting and looting, but also protect the men and women in law enforcement that wake up every day to keep us safe.”
The governor received support from Republican lawmakers and law enforcement leaders throughout the state, but also backlash from activists.
“Well, for this bill in particular, I mean there’s so many, so many things wrong with it,” said Darnel Joseph. He’s a member of the Broward Dream Defenders in South Florida, which advocates for Black communities. It’s one of the organizations that have been at the forefront of fighting this bill.
Mr. Joseph says the bill hinders progress activists work to make.
“When I think of as big of a campaign as Fight For $15 was in Florida, this bill would go ahead and directly impact the idea that people who are fast food workers or service workers don’t deserve to go ahead and organize themselves to have a sit in, have a rally or some type of demonstration, to just basically say that we deserve a livable wage in order to go ahead and work, and provide for our family,” Mr. Joseph said.
Florida did end up increasing the state’s minimum wage to $15 in November, but Mr. Joseph said it may have never happened, had the “anti-mob” bill been law.
This bill has triggered a response from activists throughout the state. Hundreds of people have shown up to the state capitol in Tallahassee to oppose it, or have held demonstrations within their own cities. Organizations have implored people to take action by calling their state representatives, signing petitions and holding rallies.
The bill, known as HB1 in the Florida House of Representatives, passed on March 26, but still has to clear the State Senate. So far, it hasn’t been listed on the agenda of any committees, and support within the Senate may not be as solid as it was in the House. In its amended version, Mr. DeSantis’s proposal to not make drivers liable for injury or death while “fleeing a mob” was removed.
One of the arguments Florida activists have made is that the state didn’t see widespread or long lasting violence during summer protests, like some other cities did. Critics also say the move could have been made as a wider effort for Mr. DeSantis’s reelection campaign in 2022.
“I think it really comes down to just wanting to censor freedom and democracy for anyone who disagrees with Governor DeSantis, or other governors that are attempting to go ahead and adopt this type of bill,” Mr. Joseph said. “I would assume that the power that people have in terms of going ahead and pushing Florida in a direction that actually helps the people versus the agenda that Governor DeSantis and those who support him in our government House is a real issue, looking down the line, and that’s what they’re really trying to take away––our freedom, our democracy and our ability to go ahead and vote for the things that we actually need to keep us alive.”
Alabama, Kentucky lawmakers push crack down
A shockingly similar bill has successfully passed through Alabama’s House of Representatives. HB 445, the “anti-protest” bill, includes some of the same elements as Mr. DeSantis’s “anti-mob” bill in an effort to crack down on protesters. According to the American Civil Liberties Union in Alabama, the bill would establish the crimes of aggravated riot and unlawful traffic interference; include a mandatory period of incarceration that is not “subject to probation or parole,” as well as take away state aid or grant money from subdivisions that opt to defund police departments.
Opponents say the bill threatens free speech and peaceful protesters.
“Let’s be clear, this anti-protest bill is a knee jerk reaction to the efforts being led by Black organizers and communities across the country to confront systemic racism and end the use of police brutality to target and harm Black people,” Dillon Nettles, policy and advocacy director for ACLU Alabama, said in a statement to The Final Call.
“That’s what last summer’s overwhelmingly safe and peaceful protests were about, and efforts like this to scare people into silence sends a message to all Alabamians, regardless of race, gender, religion, or political party, that our elected officials want to continue to operate without accountability and with the people having less of a voice.”
On March 16, the House voted to approve the bill. According to the Montgomery Advertiser, it changes the definition of riot from a person engaged in “tumultuous and violent conduct” to “the assemblage of five or more persons resulting in conduct which creates an immediate danger of damage to property or injury to persons.” It also cuts state funding to cities that decide to abolish police departments without a plan to reconstitute or replace them.
The bill was sponsored by Rep. Allen Treadaway. He was Birmingham’s assistant police chief at the time of violent summer protests and began drafting the legislation soon afterwards. He told Alabama news publication Advance Local, “Because the freedom of speech is so important, our Founding Fathers made it the first enumerated right in the U.S. Constitution, but when protest turns to violence, that liberty no longer applies. We must protect Alabama businesses, public property and first responders from the kind of mob rule that took over the streets of Birmingham this summer and my legislation establishes a firm first step toward achieving that goal.”
Cara McClure, co-founder of the Birmingham chapter of Black Lives Matter and founder of activist organization Faith&Works, has joined a number of activists in fighting against this bill.
“People would be intimidated,” Ms. McClure said. “People would not want to join the protest for fear of going to jail. It’s already difficult enough to bring people into the fold to protest, but I think it would intimidate people into not supporting and we, you know, we should be able to assemble. Our right to assemble is being attacked.”
She’s also been fighting to allocate funds from the Birmingham Police Department to put towards social work and other programs that would benefit Black communities, and says this bill would penalize those efforts.
In Kentucky, protesters have been able to bypass a bill they considered to be dangerous to demonstrators. SB 211 would have made it illegal to taunt a police officer to the point where it could provoke a violent response, and would have made it a misdemeanor if someone “accosts, insults, taunts, or challenges a law enforcement officer with offensive or derisive words, or by gestures or other physical contact, that would have a direct tendency to provoke a violent response from the perspective of a reasonable and prudent person.” Similar to the other bills, it would have increased penalties for riot-related crimes.
The bill passed the Senate, but did not receive input from the House before the March 30 deadline.
Kentucky Sen. Danny Carroll, a Republican and former police officer, sponsored the bill and said it was in response to violence that broke out following the death of Breonna Taylor.
“This bill is not meant to stifle the emotion,” Mr. Carroll told Yahoo News. “It’s meant to protect the officers, because in those situations, when you’ve got someone that’s right up in your face, yelling in your face, waving their arms, calling you every name that you can think of … they have no ability to protect themselves.”
Democratic state Senator Gerald Neal, who serves a diverse but predominantly Black district, was one of the lawmakers who opposed the bill. He says the bill offended him and those in his district.
“I was deeply offended by the fact that this was something that was intentional, overbearing, tone deaf, unnecessary … and we’ve got plenty of laws on the books to take care of any and all of these situations that this individual is talking about,” he said.
He said although the bill may have died this legislative cycle, he has no doubt it will be back.
“We’ll just have to resist it again,” he said.
Racial reckoning, or White supremacy?
According to the International Center For Not-For-Profit Law’s U.S. Protest Law Tracker, 85 pieces of legislation have been introduced to limit and penalize protesters within the last six months. The majority of the 85 have been in response to protests over the summer. GOP lawmakers in 25 states, including Oklahoma, Iowa, Missouri and Utah introduced or passed bills that increase penalties for protesters or that provide legal protection for counter-protest measures. With recent conversations throughout the country of a racial reckoning, Mr. Joseph says these types of bills are a slap in the face for Black people and other communities.
“I mean you’re very literally proposing to go ahead and censor freedom and democracy for people who literally are just exercising the rights that were placed in the country for people to do,” he said. “Protesting is very American. It’s built within the nature and history of this country. And what is currently happening, what Governor DeSantis is going ahead and proposing is that it really just, he doesn’t care about Black people.”
Nkechi Taifa, human rights attorney and author of “Black Power, Black Lawyer,” says even though some officials, such as Mr. DeSantis, have used the Capitol insurrection to give their initiatives legitimacy, it has harsher effects on certain groups of people.
“The law is going to be sledgehammered against Black folk,” Ms. Taifa said. “No matter what, we are going to be the ones to bear the brunt of these anti-protest bills. We got to look into history. Anytime there’s anything along those lines, it’s going to be applied disproportionately against Black people. It’s chilling speech, it’s chilling First Amendment rights. It makes people think twice about whether they’re going to go out and attend a demonstration.”
Ms. Taifa says lawmakers should listen to those who are seeking transformation, not implement stricter laws.
“There are already laws on the books for conspiracy and they are overbroad as it is,” she said. “There are already laws on the books for trespassing, there are already laws on the books for the destruction of property. You don’t need to implement new and even more stringent laws, particularly when these newer, more stringent laws are going to ultimately be used against Black people disproportionately,” she said.
Another aspect protesters and lawmakers who oppose these bills have noticed is that there’s focus put on protecting police, but not on protecting protesters. Mr. Neal said there haven’t been any bills to pass through Kentucky’s legislature that looks at protections for demonstrators, but that corrective action has come from a smaller scale.
“There’s a punishment system for Black folk and there’s a pardon system for the police,” Ms. Taifa said. “I think we’re in a situation where we’re in a historic period of time now for a historic reckoning on race. And I think that the country knows that, it realizes that, and they try to do whatever is in their power to make sure that the knee stays on our collective necks and that this reckoning does not result in any type of diminution of White power, White supremacy.”