Experts call 'anti-protest' bills a backlash to 2020's racial reckoning

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Republican have introduced at least 80 bills across the country to limit and penalize protests. Experts say it's a sharp backlash to last summer's protests.

May 18, 2021, 11:16 PM IST
By Char Adams
Republican legislators in several states have introduced at least 80 anti-protest bills restricting everything from “unreasonable noise” to wearing a mask during demonstrations in what some are calling a backlash to last year’s summer of protests.

The killing of George Floyd last May 25 sparked demonstrations across the country and amplified national attention to racism in police practices. Media outlets deemed it the “year of protests.” Now, there have been twice as many proposals to quell demonstrations in 2021's legislative sessions than in any other year, Elly Page, senior legal adviser at the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, which tracks anti-protest legislation, told The New York Times.

“The reason so many protests exist in the first place, whether it’s the civil rights era or Black Lives Matter, is that they are trying to change things about our society and our political system that are fundamentally broken,” said Matthew Delmont, a history professor at Dartmouth College. “It’s important to understand that the anti-protest bills we’re seeing right now are an attempt to maintain the status quo and prevent more significant change that would lead to more equitable systems.”

A Republican-backed bill in Oklahoma grants immunity to drivers who hit protesters fleeing a demonstration. The American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma has condemned the bill, and Joshua Harris-Till, president of Young Democrats of America, called it “the worst anti-protest bill in the nation,” adding that it would affect marginalized communities the most.

Under a newly proposed bill in Minnesota, those convicted of a crime related to protesting could be barred from aid like student loans, housing assistance, unemployment benefits and more. And Indiana Republicans have introduced a law to make anyone convicted of rioting ineligible for state jobs and certain state and local benefits.

Legislators in several states, including New York, Washington, Wisconsin and others, have put forth bills to expand the definition of “riot” and place steep penalties on protesters.

Protesters march up 23rd Avenue South in Seattle, Wash., on June 12, 2020.Noah Riffe / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images file
Activists, organizers and advocates in Florida are reeling after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law HB1, which expands the definition of a “riot” and places strict penalties on demonstrators; denies bail to people arrested until after a court appearance; makes it a felony to destroy a flag or monument; and allows officials to appeal when municipalities cut police budgets.

DeSantis has called the law the "strongest anti-rioting, pro-law enforcement measure in the country,” echoing other Republicans who say they support such bills as targeting rioters, as opposed to peaceful protesters.

Critics of the Florida bill have called it excessive and vague, lamenting that protesters will be unclear about what they can and cannot do. DeSantis signed the bill as Derek Chauvin stood trial in Minnesota for Floyd's murder.