In the wake of the horrifying right-wing assault on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, Republicans have flooded state legislatures with an unprecedented number of bills aimed at curbing future “riots” across the country. So far, at least 13 states have introduced at least 26 anti-protest bills since that attack, according to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law's protest law tracker.
At first glance, it might seem as if Republicans are finally taking responsibility for the wave of armed protests by their supporters across the country. In fact, opportunistic state legislators are merely repackaging proposals they have promoted for years to squash racial and environmental justice protests.
Legislation in Indiana, Florida, Nebraska, Mississippi, North Dakota, Oklahoma and Washington would expand the legal definition of a riot to target peaceful, if disruptive, protests. These bills create new felony penalties for rioting, which is broadly redefined to include “tumultuous conduct,” blocking streets or sidewalks, and obstructing law enforcement or other governmental functions.
Other so-called “critical infrastructure” bills – like the one Ohio's governor signed into law this month – are aimed at stopping protests against the fossil fuel industry. The proposals introduced in Minnesota would make trespassing “with the intent to disrupt the operation” of a pipeline a felony, in a clear attempt to thwart the ongoing Indigenous-led movement to stop Enbridge's Line 3 tar sands pipeline.
But that is just the beginning of the danger that these anti-protest laws pose. They would variously criminalize the removal of Confederate monuments, bar public benefits and government jobs to demonstrators, ban “camping” outside state capitols or even protect those who hit protesters with their cars.
Sadly, car attacks are not an abstract threat. White supremacists and the far right – both civilians and police – deliberately plowed their vehicles into Black Lives Matter demonstrators more than 100 times in the months following the killing of George Floyd, according to a report in USA Today.
In perhaps the most absurd provision, a bill in Mississippi would punish any group of six or more with up to three years in jail and a $5,000 fine for disturbing “any person in the enjoyment of a legal right.” If enacted, all protests would essentially be rendered illegal.
The historical record paints a clear picture. Anti-protest laws, dating back to the Sedition Act of 1798, have not been a response to the threat of violence, but to legitimate dissent and organizing for social change. And this raft of new laws continues that ignominious tradition.
Every advance for freedom and justice that the United States has made since its founding is the result of dedicated social movements that disrupted the status quo.
Abolitionists were accused of sedition as they hastened the end of slavery. Women won the right to vote after hounding President Woodrow Wilson for years outside the White House. The Voting Rights Act was passed after thousands of civil rights protesters, including Martin Luther King Jr., blocked traffic during the historic march from Selma to Montgomery.
More recently, undocumented “Dreamers” blocked intersections to secure Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Activists with disabilities obstructing the halls of Congress with their wheelchairs were instrumental in stopping the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. And the Sunrise Movement put the Green New Deal on the national agenda with a sit-in at Rep. Nancy Pelosi's office.
As the Biden administration gets to work, tackling climate change, establishing universal health care or rolling back gaping inequality will require far more disruptive protest, not less. And that requires first killing these undemocratic bills.
Eric Stoner is a co-founder and editor of Waging Nonviolence, and an adjunct professor at St. Joseph's College. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project.