Society

States Considering Steps To Criminalize Protests

| by Robert Fowler

Lawmakers in 18 states have introduced bills to expand penalties for protesters following ongoing protests against President Donald Trump and his administration, the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline and shootings of unarmed African Americans at the hands of law enforcement.

Since the Jan. 20 inauguration of Trump, more than a dozen state legislatures have considered bills that would increase penalties for protesters or make it easier for law enforcement to disperse crowds, The Washington Post reports.

On Feb. 23, Republican Gov. Doug Burgum of North Dakota signed four bills into law that will expand the definition of trespassing and increase law enforcement's abilities to hand down fines to protesters. The new laws follow the climax of protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, which Native American tribes and environmental activists have been protesting since July.

South Dakota Senators are considering a bill that would establish a safety zone during riots, and if anyone entered them, then they would be fined, according to The Hill. 

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The Oklahoma legislature is considering increasing legal penalties for protesters who trespass on pipelines or railways, while the Colorado legislature is considering a bill that would increase penalties for protesters who tamper with oil and gas equipment, The Washington Post notes.

Meanwhile, lawmakers in Iowa, Indiana, Minnesota, Mississippi and Washington state are considering bills that would stiffen penalties for protesters who block highway traffic. The Georgia legislature is considering a bill that would increase penalties for protesters who block highways, in addition to any public street or sidewalk.

The Florida and Tennessee legislatures are considering bills to provide civil immunity to drivers who inadvertently run over protesters blocking roads.

The Arizona legislature will consider a bill that would amend the state's anti-racketeering laws to extend towards protest organizers, allowing law enforcement to arrest and seize the assets of anyone responsible for protests that devolve into riots.

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Lee Rowland, senior attorney for the ACLU's Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, has asserted that these bills are an overreach to counter the heated political climate of the country.

"Robust protest activity is a sign of the health of our republic ... To see legislators in these states make it a priority not to listen to the voices of their constituents, but to silence them, is deeply troubling and fundamentally un-American," Rowland told The Hill.

The bills have been proposed following years of growing protest in the country. On Jan. 21, more than 3 million people in cities across the nation joined the Women's March on Washington to "send a bold message to our new government on their first day in office," according to the March's website.

Sociology professor Douglas McAdam of Stanford told The Washington Post that states have historically introduced legislation to counter protest movements, noting that southern legislatures responded to the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s with "dozens and dozens of new bills outlawing civil rights groups, limiting the rights of assembly ... in an effort to make civil rights organizing more difficult."

McAdam added that lawmakers have historically worked to discredit protest movements as paid by special interest groups, citing Democrats' accusations that the Tea Party movement had been funded by the billionaire Koch family.

"In all these cases, including the present, the charges are generally bogus, with the vast majority of protesters principled individuals motivated by the force of deeply held values and strong emotion," McAdam said.

On Feb. 3, Trump took to social media to blast protests against his presidency, KGO News reports.

"Professional anarchists, thugs and paid protesters are proving the point of the millions of people who voted to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!" Trump tweeted.

Sources: KGOThe Hill, The Washington Post, Women's March / Photo Credit: Mobilus In Mobili/Flickr

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