Red States Crack Down on Protests

https://jensorensen.com/2021/01/26/freedom-vs-freedom-2021-coronavirus-authoritarianism/

The GOP’s “freedom” rhetoric yields to its authoritarian agenda.


Standard conservative rhetoric treats the word freedom like partisan property: Republicans defend freedom, while Democrats are all Stalin-wannabees.

Usually, pro-gun rallies are where you see this trope in its purest form, but during the pandemic it has shown up in anti-public-health protests as well. Two weeks ago, we saw it in Congress, when Jim Jordan assailed Dr. Fauci with “When do Americans get their freedom back?” Occasionally, the two issues combine, as when armed protesters stormed the Oregon Capitol while the legislature debated anti-Covid measures.

Lately, though, we’ve been seeing how hollow the Right’s commitment to “freedom” is, at least when people use their freedom to support liberal causes. In previous weeks, I’ve talked at length about the anti-voting laws red-state legislatures have been passing in response to their dark-but-baseless fantasies about election fraud. But lately their focus has turned towards punishing liberal protest.

The latest push in red-state legislatures — Florida, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Iowa so far — is for laws that criminalize protest and encourage vigilante action against protesters.

[Oklahoma] HB 1674, which Republican legislators passed earlier this week, grants civil and criminal immunity for drivers who “unintentionally” harm or kill protesters while “fleeing from a riot,” as long as there is a “reasonable belief that fleeing was necessary.”

Running over protesters is a long-standing conservative fantasy, which James Alex Fields Jr. carried out when he killed Heather Heyer in Charlottesville in 2017. If I were a Democrat in one of these legislatures, I think I’d submit a motion to rename the bill “The Heather Heyer Had It Coming Act of 2021”.

At the end of last summer, USA Today reported:

There have been at least 104 incidents of people driving vehicles into protests from May 27 through Sept. 5, including 96 by civilians and eight by police, according to Ari Weil, a terrorism researcher at the University of Chicago’s Project on Security and Threats who spoke with USA TODAY this summer.

I have some sympathy for people who unexpectedly find themselves surrounded by protesters doing threatening things, like rocking the car or pounding on its roof. But I’m not sure how many cases, if any, fit that description. In this video, for example, the driver comes back for a second pass through the crowd.

“Unintentionally” sounds like it mitigates the harm, but it actually doesn’t, because intentionality is so hard to prove in court. And the “reasonable belief” standard in the Oklahoma law creates an opening for the same kind of racial bias we see in police-shooting and stand-your-ground cases: What if the driver’s impression of danger is based on the race of the protesters, rather than any threatening actions? Might a few white jurors sympathize with a driver who got scared simply because his car was surrounded by Black people?

These laws also give the government more power to clamp down on dissent. Florida’s law, which has already been signed by Gov. DeSantis, creates new crimes that you might commit just by showing up for what you believe to be a peaceful protest.

But opponents say it would make it easier for law enforcement to charge organizers and anyone involved in a protest, even if they had not engaged in any violence.

“The problem with this bill is that the language is so overbroad and vague … that it captures anybody who is peacefully protesting at a protest that turns violent through no fault of their own,” said Kara Gross, the legislative director at ACLU Florida. “Those individuals who do not engage in any violent conduct under this bill can be arrested and charged with a third-degree felony and face up to five years in prison and loss of voting rights. The whole point of this is to instill fear in Floridians.”

In addition:

If a local government chooses to decrease its law enforcement budget — to “defund the police,” as Mr. 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.

As with the anti-voting laws, the justification for the Florida law is largely imaginary.

Speakers including the governor said the law would protect law enforcement and private property against rioters, despite acknowledging there was little violent unrest in Florida during last year’s protests over Floyd’s death.

… Echoing DeSantis, Republican state House Speaker Chris Sprowls and Attorney General Ashley Moody vilified other states and cities for their handling of the protests last year, some of which did turn violent.

State CFO Jimmy Patronis claimed that Portland, New York and Seattle “burned to the ground” last summer.

I’m sure that’s news to the residents of those cities. If there were vast refugee camps in New Jersey, across the Hudson from burned-out New York, I’m sure I’d have heard about them. The main studios of Fox News are on Sixth Avenue, so they would just have to point a camera out the window to show us the devastation.

An interesting question is how this law interacts with Florida’s Stand Your Ground law.

In general, Floridians can defend themselves with deadly force if they believe they are in imminent danger or death — and not only when they are inside their homes. The person being threatened is not required to try to flee.

If I’m protesting peacefully, and a car is bearing down on me in a threatening way, can I just shoot the driver? If his fear justifies running over me, shouldn’t my fear justify shooting him?

Conservatives don’t ask these questions, because they know they are the ones who threaten deadly violence. In a relatively small number of cases, last summer’s George Floyd protests devolved into property damage and looting. But liberals didn’t get in their cars to mow down anti-lockdown protesters, and George Floyd marchers didn’t bring their AR-15s.

Another question conservatives like to avoid is: What if D.C. had such a law on January 6? Right now, the Justice Department expects to charge about 500 Trump cultists who trespassed into the Capitol after the crowd broke windows and pushed back police (injuring over 100 of them). But a law like Florida’s would justify felony charges against the many thousands of people from Trump’s rally who walked in the direction of the Capitol, not to mention Trump himself. By the new Florida standards, anyone who stood outside the Capitol with a Trump sign is a rioter, because they participated in a protest that had turned violent.

But for some reason, conservatives never imagine that the laws they support will ever aimed at them. Consider Thomas Webster, a retired NYPD cop who has been charged for his participation in the January 6 riot.

Prosecutors say that he “attacked a police officer with an aluminum pole and ripped off his protective gear and gas mask, causing the officer to choke.”

According to WaPo reporter Rachel Weiner:

Lawyer for Tommy Webster, retired NYPD cop accused of beating an MPD officer with flagpole on #J6, says his client is in a “dormitory setting” with people serving time for “inner-city crimes” – “for a middle aged guy whose never been arrested before this has been a shock for him”

Who could have guessed? You beat one cop with a flagpole, and suddenly people are treating you like you’re Black or something.

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Comments

  • Timothy Swanson  On April 26, 2021 at 3:00 pm

    God, it’s never good when Bakersfield ends up in national news. Sigh.

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