ALEC is a long-condemned organization whose mission is to share regressive and theocratic legislative ideas between states. They have long advocated heightened criminal penalties for behaviors with relatively low social cost, or, in cases of public political expression, with actual social value.
I don’t know to what extent ALEC has been working on issues of shutting down protest and public expression, but it seems to me that the “leadership” of Trump is making ALEC less and less necessary. There is a zeitgeist, and that geist is haunting the Ebenezers in our state governments. There’s no turkey dinner for the cripples at the end of this story, however. The state legislators want to control us, every one.
While there are other topics I could discuss in terms of state legislative trends, I want to particularly call out this growing need to control speech through punitive legislation, through denial of remedy, and, yes, through simply killing protestors.
Let’s take a loot at the Midwest, shall we?
- Rep. Bobby Kaufmann of Iowa has proposed a bill he calls the “Suck it up, Buttercup” bill. What does the bill do? One part would penalize universities for spending money on certain activities supporting students if the support was around concerns arising from Trump’s election or, possibly, other actions in the public policy or political spheres. Another part of the same bill would enhance (and some would say clarify) penalties for blocking traffic during a protest.
- Minnesota legislators are pushing a bill by using the example of Black Lives Matter protests after the murder of Philando Castile by police officer JERONIMO YANEZ. In particular, the bill’s proponents note that protestors blocked freeway traffic. What does the bill do? It authorizes cities to sue citizens who break laws during the course of a protest. For how much? For however much the city spent on policing the protest.
- Rep. Keith Kempenich of North Dakota followed up a bill that would, like Minnesota’s bill, permit protestors to be sued for policing costs if they are convicted of pretty much anything that can be related to the protest. What does the second bill do? It relieves a driver of liability if they injure or kill protestors, so long as the driver did so “unintentionally”.
- Indiana appears to want to go the farthest. Sen Jim Tomes decided that literally anything goes when dealing with protestors. While Tomes is resisting criticism that his bill authorizes police to shoot protestors to death, the bill does instruct any “responsible public official” (meaning an official with responsibilities in this area) who learns of a traffic-obstructing protest to dispatch law enforcement to the scene and to direct them to use “any means necessary to clear the roads”. Without language that prohibits shooting a protestor or ten pour encourager les autres, it’s hard to argue that “any means necessary” has any clear limits that exclude the killing of citizens engaging in political expression on the roadways.
Michigan introduced some legislation that would fit here, but it has since been withdrawn. Other regions of the country aren’t immune to the trend, however. In the state of Washington last November, we saw Sen Doug Ericksen pledge the introduction of a bill against “Economic Terrorism”. What would it do? According to Ericksen’s own publicly-funded website, it would
create a class C felony when protests aimed at causing economic disruption jeopardize human life and property. It would not apply in cases of lawful and protected activities, such as strikes and picketing.
Although Ericksen has since removed the language promoting his own promised bill, his words are preserved in quotes on many websites and on the Wayback Machine. Snopes, debunking the idea that protestors were already being charged with terrorism or economic terrorism, pointed out that while that was, indeed, a reasonable interpretation of the goal of Ericksen’s bill, no one had yet been arrested under the law since the law had not yet been passed. In its takedown of concerns people had already been charged with terrorism, however, it quotes this language originally from a Fox6Now story:
Washington State Sen. Doug Ericksen said Wednesday he is preparing a bill that would create a new crime of “economic terrorism” that would allow felony prosecution of protesters who block streets, cause property damage, threaten jobs and put public safety at risk. …
Ericksen said the penalties would also apply “to those who fund, organize, sponsor or otherwise encourage others to commit acts of economic terrorism. Accomplices may be required to pay restitution up to triple the amount of economic damage.”
“We are not just going after the people who commit these acts of terrorism,” Ericksen said. “We are going after the people who fund them. Wealthy donors should not feel safe in disrupting middle class jobs.”
Remember that Washington is the state where Seattle happens to be located. Yes, that same Seattle where calmly, peacefully leaving the area of a protest, while on the sidewalk, while talking to one’s mother on the phone gets you a face full of pepper spray. Think I’m leaving out important context? Oh, no. It’s worse than you think.
SANDRA DELAFUENTE, the officer who fired that pepper spray, had her behavior downplayed by the Seattle police chief who lessened the punishment recommended by the OPA. In fact, the chief appeared to spend more of her media time addressing DELAFUENTE’s reprimand in praising DELAFUENTE than in condemning the indiscriminate and unjustified and therefor illegal use of a weapon to cause pain and injury, to heighten fear among the local population, in order to gain compliance with demands, legal or not, reasonable or not.
In fact, while police are repeatedly praised even as they commit acts that meet any reasonable definition of terrorism, one of the three primary threads connecting all these bills is playing up the behavior of protestors – playing it up to the point that the protestors are the terrorists. While in Minnesota and Iowa the “terrorist” language appears to be coming only from supporters who are not elected officials, in North Dakota, Kempenich himself justified his drive-over-protestors-it’s-okay bill by saying of the NoDAPL actions, “It turned from a protest to basically terrorism on the roadways, and the bill got introduced for people to be able to drive down the roads without fear of running into somebody and having to be liable for them.”
This of course pulls at the third thread connecting these legislative actions: blocking traffic.
Blocking traffic is repeatedly either targeted in the bills or mentioned in the public statements justifying the bills’ introduction. What isn’t mentioned is that being arrested for blocking traffic does not require a stationary barrier, occupation of a freeway, or refusal to let an ambulance through. Just as fascist policing tactics justify pepper spraying an individual merely walking away from an area where a protest has just occurred, likewise the same policing tactics routinely justify arrest of individuals who are crossing a street either during or after a protest.
What isn’t mentioned in these bills is that the streets are made for the people, the people are not made for the streets. When traffic slows to a crawl because too many cars are using the same stretch of road, it is not terrorism. In the same way, if traffic slows to a crawl because too many people outside of cars are using the same stretch of road, it is not terrorism. Whether riding on horseback across Sioux land or walking on foot across a Selma bridge, the use of the roads by the people is not an attack on people who wish to be going 30 or 50 or 80 mph faster. The police are not protecting streets’ rights when they pepper spray us or arrest us for walking along them, for crossing them.
Nor is the primary concern of police departments the safety of the people. If it were, the use of weaponized pepper spray would be subjected to rigorous condemnation save in instances where it was obviously used in a way limited to the needs of self-defense. Legislators who wish to protect drivers who run over protestors show that protecting protestor safety isn’t on the minds of governmental higher-ups either.
No, this attention to the streets is a tactic used by lawmakers because it gives a gross amount of discretion to the officers on the ground to arrest as many as possible. It is, of course, hard to prove in a court of law later (even if true!) that one was crossing the street with the light, not against. Worse, in the context of large rallies it is frequently the case that so many other people are in a crosswalk that, despite being against the light, one more person entering the crosswalk has no impact on traffic or safety. And so, being human, we cross against the light. This relatively trivial decision with obviously trivial consequences can then be used to sue us for the entire costs of the fascist policing that failed to keep us from speaking out. In some cases, jurisdictions are proposing merely increased fines (I’ve heard of a city that recently increased the fine to $1000). But these bills appear to be unlimited in their ability to collect a judgement. If the cops spend millions to try to prevent the people from speaking, and you are one of the ones unlucky enough to get hauled in for crossing against the light, these bills appear to authorize taking your home, your car, everything.
Don’t think for a moment that if these bills are passed they won’t be used.