By Sarah Lazare
The rise of right-wing populism in the United States—from the White House to state legislatures—has been met with public resistance on a stunning scale. Millions have taken to the streets, staged direct actions and flooded airports to resist a flurry of presidential decrees targeting undocumented, black, refugee, LGBTQ and poor communities. And long before Trump took the White House, the Black Lives Matter movement and indigenous water protectors at Standing Rock were leading the way with sustained mobilizations in the face of staggering repression.
Now, under cover of the Trump administration’s “law and order” platform, Republican lawmakers at the state level—often with the backing of police unions—are advancing a spate of bills aimed at crushing this groundswell. The proposed legislation would impose draconian penalties on protest organizers and participants, expanding local powers to put demonstrators in jail, seize their assets and further criminalize property destruction.
In recent weeks and months, politicians in at least 11 states—Minnesota, Washington, Iowa, Michigan, North Dakota, Indiana, Virginia, Colorado, Missouri, North Carolina and Arizona—have either introduced or threatened to introduce bills that make it more dangerous or costly to attend protests, or be anywhere near them. One bill recently proposed in North Dakota, and clearly aimed at Standing Rock resistance, would have expanded protections for drivers who “accidentally” hit and kill protesters. While the legislation failed earlier this month, it nonetheless reflects a troubling political push to snuff out dissent.
Using racketeering laws to go after protesters’ assets
A bill that just passed through the Arizona State Senate would expand the state’s racketeering laws on organized crime to “rioting,” broadly defined to include acts that result in property destruction. This move would broaden the powers of authorities to target protest organizers and participants—and even seize their assets.
Backed by the Arizona Police Association, Senate Bill 1142 “[e]xpands the definition of riot to include immediate power of execution which results in damage to the property of another person,” according to an Arizona State Senate fact sheet.
“A person commits riot if, with two or more other persons acting together, such person recklessly uses force or violence or threatens to use force or violence, if such threat is accompanied by immediate power of execution, which either disturbs the public peace or results in damage to the property of another person,” the bill states.
According to Steve Kilar, spokesperson for the ACLU of Arizona, the proposed legislation’s definition of rioting is “fuzzy and incredibly vague.” This law “would allow police and prosecutors to go after anyone who is at a protest” that authorities claim turned into a riot, he explained.
The Senate fact sheet notes that including “rioting” under racketeering statutes would provide prosecutors with “options that are generally not available under other types of criminal statutes, such as forfeitures, including the ability to confiscate the fruits of criminal activity from those convicted of racketeering offenses.”
The legislation itself emanates from false conspiracy theories. “Sen. Sonny Borrelli has said this is in response to unverified claims that protesters are being paid,” Kilar said. “He is using this false paid-protesters argument to connect his bill to anti-racketeering laws, which are targeting the financial incentives of criminal enterprises.”
The bill, which is headed to the Arizona House, also aims to blur the line between rioting and terrorism. According to Kilar, “If this bill were to pass, riots would join terrorism as the only racketeering crimes under Arizona state law that would not require financial incentive.”
The legislation appears to be aimed at mass mobilizations to oppose deportations. Earlier this month, ICE was met with a 15-hour, direct-action protest when it tried, with the help of Phoenix police, to deport Guadalupe García de Rayos. Protesters, including her own son and daughter, sat in the street holding hands to stop an ICE vehicle from taking away Guadalupe, who has lived in the United States for 21 years. After an hours-long stand-off, which was captured on live-stream, the mother of two was eventually deported to Mexico. By then, images of resistance against her expulsion had spread across the country.
“It appears that the state legislature wants to silence people’s voices by passing these laws,” said Ernesto Lopez, an organizer with Puente Arizona, which mobilized the opposition to Guadalupe’s deportation. “This seems to be really extreme and aimed at silencing small organizations and people’s movements in a very negative way.”
‘They’d rather we just be quiet’
The bill wending its way through Arizona’s legislature is not an isolated case. The Minnesota House of Representatives is currently weighing HF 322, which gives the city broad latitude to sue protesters for the cost of policing demonstrations. The bill’s author, Representative Nick Zerwas, once made the jaw-dropping pronouncement that “Rosa Parks sat in the front of the bus. She didn’t get out and lay down in front of the bus.”
Meanwhile another Minnesota bill, if passed, would impose harsher penalties on protesters who conduct acts of civil disobedience on highways, making such acts punishable by up to a year in jail.
Both pieces of proposed legislation target the Black Lives Matter movement in the state, which has actively protested the state-sanctioned killing of black residents, including Jamar Clark and Philando Castile.
“It is really unfortunate that this is what the GOP is choosing to focus their time on,” Mica Grimm, an organizer with Black Lives Matter – Minneapolis, told AlterNet. “I think that Trump has definitely emboldened some people in the GOP to infringe on civil liberties and criminalize dissent. They’d rather we just be quiet.”
One bill introduced in Indiana initially mandated that authorities clear protesters from roadways within 15 minutes by “any means necessary.” Following public outcry, lawmakers removed the “by any means” language from the bill, but the latest text still calls for the increased criminalization of participants in acts of civil disobedience.
Along similar lines, SF 111, currently being weighed by the Iowa legislature, says that people who blocked traffic on highways can be hit with felony charges, punishable by up to five years behind bars. The legislation was direct retaliation for November protests against Trump that shut down the I-80 highway.
Meanwhile, Washington lawmakers are currently considering SB 5009, which would stiffen penalties against protesters who cause “economic disruption,” imposing sentences ranging from 60 days to a year in jail. Sen. Doug Ericksen, who introduced the bill, said in a press statement that “The measure is prompted by recent illegal actions that have blocked rail and highway transportation, including a demonstration at a rail chokepoint in Skagit County last summer that blocked traffic between Seattle and Vancouver for 11 hours.” Over 50 people were arrested in May 2016 when they blocked trains to two key oil refineries to protest climate change and fossil fuels extraction.
‘This is how you move toward fascism and nationalism’
Heavy crackdowns on protesters are not limited to cities and towns where anti-protest bills have been introduced. Over 200 people mass arrested at an inauguration protest in Washington, D.C., have been hit with felony riot charges, each facing up to 10 years in jail and a $25,000 fine. Meanwhile, law enforcement is compelling tech giants including Apple and Facebook to mine the personal data of its users, and the companies appear to be complying.
Because the arrests took place in Washington, D.C., the cases are being prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, which is directly accountable to the Department of Justice, now overseen by the notorious white supremacist Jeff Sessions.
“We are seeing Sessions prosecuting mass arrests from January 20, and it is very obvious that they are using draconian tactics to criminalize dissent,” Pooja Gehi, the executive director of the National Lawyers Guild, told AlterNet. “The protesters were charged with inciting felony riot, under a subsection that’s never used. This is a new precedent meant to terrorize people.”
Flint Taylor, a founding partner of the Chicago-based People’s Law Office, told AlterNet that he believes that Trump’s three executive orders on crime and policing have emboldened these state-level initiatives. One decree, titled “Preventing Violence Against Federal, State, Tribal, and Local Law Enforcement Officers,” is premised on the false claim that there is a war on cops. The order instructs the executive branch to “develop strategies, in a process led by the Department of Justice (Department) and within the boundaries of the Constitution and existing Federal laws, to further enhance the protection and safety of Federal, State, tribal, and local law enforcement officers.”
Sessions, who heads the DOJ, has said that he does not believe systemic police brutality is a problem worth addressing.
“The language of this bill is focused on ‘preventing violence,’ which was the exact language of the memoranda that former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover wrote justifying the neutralization—i.e. destruction—of everyone from Martin Luther King Jr. to the Black Panthers,” said Taylor. “One of the key aspects of COINTELPRO was to ‘prevent violence.’ That was the cover for destroying movements.”
“Together with all the other preliminary indications from the Trump administration, this executive order bodes extremely ill, particularly for communities of color, in terms of unleashing the already awesome and racist power of police departments in cities across the country.”
Meanwhile, right-wing Republicans in Congress, with apparent backing from the Trump administration, are advancing efforts to declare the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. The initiative, which emanates from far-right conspiracy theories that the Sunni Islamist group is infiltrating the U.S. government, is aimed at crushing Muslim civil society organizations at the core of resistance to Trump.
Amidst a climate of authoritarianism, anti-protest laws are advancing alongside so-called Blue Lives Matter bills that protect police officers under hate crime laws meant to safeguard historically oppressed communities. These initiatives are spreading across the country, with Republicans now in control of roughly two-thirds of the partisan legislative chambers in the United States.
“I definitely think there are a lot of Republicans who feel that Trump is a dog whistle to start writing bills that infringe on people’s rights, because we’re seeing that on a federal level,” said Grimm. “They are taking advantage of this time to make sure that people who don’t agree with them don’t have the right to express that. This is how you move toward fascism and nationalism, by getting rid of dissent.”