fb-pixel Skip to main content

How the GOP is creating harsher penalties for protesters

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed sweeping legislation this week that toughened existing laws governing public disorder and created a harsh new level of infractions.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed sweeping legislation this week that toughened existing laws governing public disorder and created a harsh new level of infractions.Joe Raedle/Getty

Republican legislators in Oklahoma and Iowa have passed bills granting immunity to drivers whose vehicles strike and injure protesters in public streets.

A Republican proposal in Indiana would bar anyone convicted of unlawful assembly from holding state employment, including elected office. A Minnesota bill would prohibit those convicted of unlawful protesting from receiving student loans, unemployment benefits, or housing assistance.

And in Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis signed sweeping legislation this week that toughened existing laws governing public disorder and created a harsh new level of infractions — a bill he’s called “the strongest anti-looting, anti-rioting, pro-law-enforcement piece of legislation in the country.”

Advertisement



The measures are part of a wave of new anti-protest legislation, sponsored and supported by Republicans, in the 11 months since Black Lives Matter protests swept the country following the death of George Floyd. The Minneapolis police officer who killed Floyd, Derek Chauvin, was convicted Tuesday on murder and manslaughter charges, a cathartic end to weeks of tension.

But while Democrats seized on Floyd’s death in May to highlight racism in policing and other forms of social injustice, Republicans responded to a summer of protests by proposing a raft of punitive new measures governing the right to lawfully assemble. GOP lawmakers in 34 states have introduced 81 anti-protest bills during the 2021 legislative session — more than twice as many proposals as in any other year, according to Elly Page, a senior legal adviser at the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, which tracks legislation limiting the right to protest.

Some, like DeSantis, are labeling them “anti-riot” bills, conflating the right to peaceful protest with the rioting and looting that sometimes resulted from such protests.

The laws carry forward the hyperbolic message Republicans have been pushing in the 11 months since Black Lives Matter protests against racial injustice swept the country: that Democrats are tolerant of violent and criminal actions from those who protest against racial injustice. And the legislation underscores the extent to which support for law enforcement personnel and opposition to protests have become part of the bedrock of GOP orthodoxy and a likely pillar of the platform the party will take into next year’s midterms.

Advertisement



“This is consistent with the general trend of legislators’ responding to powerful and persuasive protests by seeking to silence them rather than engaging with the message of the protests,” said Vera Eidelman, a lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union. “If anything, the lesson from the last year, and decades, is not that we need to give more tools to police and prosecutors, it’s that they abuse the tools they already have.”

Laws already exist to punish rioting, and civil rights advocates worry that the new bills violate rights of lawful assembly and free speech protected under the First Amendment. The overwhelming majority of last summer’s nationwide Black Lives Matter protests were peaceful — more than 96 percent involved no property damage or police injuries, according to The Washington Post, which also found that police officers or counterprotesters often instigated violence.

The Florida law imposes harsher penalties for existing public disorder crimes, turning misdemeanor offenses into felonies, creating new felony offenses, and preventing defendants from being released on bail until they have appeared before a judge. A survey conducted in January by Ryan D. Tyson, a Republican pollster, found broad support in the state for harsher penalties against protesters “who damage personal and business property or assault law enforcement.”

Advertisement



But the law goes further. If a local government chooses to decrease its law enforcement budget — to “defund the police,” as DeSantis put it — the measure provides a new mechanism for a prosecutor or a city or county commissioner to appeal the reduction to the state.

The law also increases penalties for taking down monuments, including Confederate ones, making the offense a second-degree felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison. It makes it easier for anyone who injures a protester, such as by driving into a crowd, to escape civil liability.

State Senator Shevrin D. Jones, a Democrat from Broward County and a vocal critic of the law, noted that DeSantis had been quick to emphasize how necessary the bill was the day after the deadly Jan. 6 riot at the US Capitol but had made no mention of that event during Monday’s bill signing, focusing solely on the summer protests.

That was evidence, he said, that bills aimed at punishing protesters were disproportionately targeting people of color.

“This bill is racist at its core,” Jones said.

So far, three bills aimed at limiting protests have been signed into law — Florida’s and new laws in Arkansas and Kansas that target protesters who seek to disrupt oil pipelines. Others are likely to come soon.

In Oklahoma, Republican lawmakers last week sent legislation to Governor Kevin Stitt that would criminalize the unlawful blocking of a public street and grant immunity to drivers who strike and injure protesters during a riot. In June, a pickup truck carrying a horse trailer drove through a crowd of Black Lives Matter protesters on a Tulsa freeway, injuring several people and leaving one paralyzed. The driver, who said he had sped up because he feared for the safety of his family, was not charged.

Advertisement