Bill Knight column for 7-29, 30 or 31, 2021
A troubling trend of anti-protest legislation is growing, but recent successes in Republican statehouses isn’t new. There were earlier attempts, including one in Democratic-majority Illinois that failed, barely.
Illinois dodged a bullet – or a Buick.
The “crackdown” isn’t necessary since laws exist to punish violators, and implied permission to run over demonstrators with cars is crazy. But its intention is to chill involvement – “part of a larger trend of conservative, Right-wing efforts at the state level designed to counter the goals of social movements,” commented Traci Yoder of the National Lawyers Guild.
As lawmakers dabble in restricting protests, imagine how anti-protest laws would be applied to a White counterdemonstrator in camo at a Black Lives Matter rally and then picture a Black man driving through a gun-rights march.
That’s chilling alright, but not the way Right-wingers want.
In Illinois in 2019, HB 1633 sought to increase penalties for nonviolent conduct at some demonstrations. Backed by the fossil-fuel industry, it passed the Illinois House that April, 77-28.
Despite a clever divide-and-conquer tactic exempting unions from its provisions (ex-Illinois AFL-CIO president Michael Corrigan and Mark Denzler, president of the anti-union Illinois Manufacturers Association sent a joint letter endorsing the bill), a diverse coalition including unions (such as the Illinois Federation of Teachers, Letter Carriers and SEIU) plus civil-liberties advocates, environmental organizations and community groups like the Jane Addams Senior Caucus finally explained that it may have been intended as a warning to protestors, but it also was a step in a slippery slope toward repressing 1st Amendment rights.
“Any legislator who is concerned about climate change, about free speech, about criminal justice, now would be the time to stand up against this bill, which bad on all of these things,” Natural Resources Defense Council/Illinois’ J.C. Kibbey said.
The bill’s chief sponsor, Sen. Michael Hastings (D-Matteson), pulled the measure, presumably due to criticism after its passage in the House, telling CapitolFax’s Rich Miller, “I had serious concerns as to some of the provisions.”
So, yes, Illinois evaded a bullet aimed at citizens’ rights of free speech, assembly and seeking redress.
Two years later, other state capitals moved from hosting lobbyists from Chevron, Dow and Shell, plus pipelines and refineries, to welcoming critics of Black Lives Matter demonstrations, and some 80 bills have been introduced in 34 states recently, according to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNPL).
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said, “It’s no coincidence that these bills were introduced by politicians who harshly criticized calls for racial justice and police accountability.”
The Right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) wrote the model bill targeting protests, and versions redefine “riots” to include as few as three people, and make people just attending demonstrations vulnerable to prosecution – even if they break no laws.
Some also limit liabilities for those who run over protestors with cars. (USA Today reported 104 incidents of vehicles driving into protestors last summer, 8 by police, but the current campaign’s implicit acceptance of the act could spark copycat action. In fact, a motorist in June plowed into a small group of protestors in Minneapolis, killing one and injuring three.
Opponents caution that anti-protest isn’t about preventing property damage, but to silence activists in reaction to actions like the Black Lives Matter actions from coast to coast and the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock.
The main goal isn’t to protect the public or even private corporations. It’s to curtail demonstrations, especially effective ones such as mass gatherings, dramatic actions or civil disobedience by having some think, “The penalties aren’t worth the risk.”
If such laws had been enacted in the last few years, ACLU attorney Max Gaston told In These Times magazine, “virtually every major demonstration, from the Women’s March to the March for Our Lives, would have involved a heightened level of danger from police and counter-protestors.”
In Florida, where the bill passed, Democratic State Sen. Jason W. B. Pizzo commented to the Washington Post that the law is as “overreaching dragnet,” a “solution in search of a problem.”
Law-enforcement advocate Barney Bishop tried to defend Florida’s bill as even-handed, claiming to Salon, “Florida is as opposed to the Proud Boys as we are to far-Left groups,” but he added that violence is incited by people like “George Soros and Antifa and Black Lives Matter” (although 95% of BLM protests last year were peaceful, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project).
The laws’ “language is so sweeping that it encompasses way more than what people imagine,” said ICNPF’s Elly Page.
Do Americans think the country decided to severely criminalize peaceful protests to protect profits, campaign contributors and obstructionists?