Not content to wage just a war on voting rights, the GOP has now expanded its assault on our democracy with a new war on freedom of speech. On Wednesday, Oklahoma's Republican governor, Kevin Stitt, signed a bill into law that enacts criminal penalties for people who block the street while peacefully protesting, while granting criminal and civil immunity to motorists who unintentionally harm protesters in fleeing said protests. In essence, the law expands "Stand your ground" to "Drive your car into a crowd of protesters."
During the legislative session so far, GOP legislators have introduced 81 "anti-protest" bills in 34 states.
In other words, if drivers believe there is a "riot," they can literally drive through protesters and kill or maim people without fear of criminal or civil liability. State Sen. Kevin Matthews, a Democrat from Tulsa, shared his fears that this law could be used by white nationalists, citing how white mobs attacked and killed Blacks during the infamous 1921 Tulsa race massacre in response to the lie that the Black community was "rioting."
During the legislative session so far, GOP legislators have introduced 81 "anti-protest" bills in 34 states — that's more than twice as many as in any other year. Apparently, the GOP is not satisfied with simply enacting laws that will make it more challenging for people of color to vote; they now want to make it more difficult for people to publicly organize and march in support of political causes the GOP opposes.
The rash of measures follows a year of protests initiated by the Black Lives Matter movement, for which many Republican officials have well-documented contempt, which filled streets around the country last summer after the murder of George Floyd.
On Monday, while the nation was gripped by the closing arguments in the trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law what's been dubbed "anti-mob" legislation. As the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida said, "this is not an anti-riot bill, regardless of what supporters claim. It is a bill that criminalizes peaceful protest," adding, "Each and every provision harkens back to Jim Crow."
In essence, the law expands "Stand your ground" to "Drive your car into a crowd of protesters."
Florida state Rep. Anna V. Eskamani, a Democrat, slammed the bill in an email, writing that "the governor's anti-protesting bill is part of a coordinated assault on Black lives and all of our fundamental rights and freedoms."
This new law, as the Florida ACLU notes, could result in a person's being charged with a felony for being part of a protest that becomes violent even if the person was not directly involved in violent activity. "The bill also protects shrines to white supremacy with enhanced charges for damaging Confederate monuments or the Confederate flag," the ACLU said, making the offense a second-degree felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
The law increases the criminal classification of peaceful protesting that blocks highways during demonstrations from a misdemeanor to a felony and automatically denies bail to those arrested under the law, meaning that as a practical matter, people arrested are likely to remain in jail at least overnight before they see a judge.
If you are convicted of a felony under this, or any, Florida law, it also furthers the GOP's apparent objective of making it harder to vote, since convicted felons lose their right to vote until they are released from prison and pay all outstanding fines.
You might wonder how destructive were the protests in Florida last summer that necessitated these new sweeping laws. Florida saw little in terms of crime arising from the protests. As The Washington Post documented, 96.3 percent of last summer's BLM protests in the state involved no property damage or police injuries. There are already laws to punish the offenses addressed by this new law, and the GOP knows that.
To be clear, there's no place for violence or property damage when it comes to protests. We do, however, have the constitutional right to peaceful assembly.
In Minnesota last week, Republican state Sen. David Osmek introduced a bill that would make anyone convicted of any "illegal conduct" at a protest ineligible to receive student loans, food stamps, rent assistance or unemployment benefits. (Given that the state has a Democratic governor, that measure has little chance of becoming law.)
To be clear, there's no place for violence or property damage when it comes to protests. We do, however, have the constitutional right to peaceful assembly. And there are more than enough laws on the books to prosecute anyone who engages in illegal conduct.
These laws being championed by the GOP, however, are not about protecting the peace; they are about silencing dissent. They are yet another alarming example of the GOP's increasing embrace of authoritarianism and rejection of our democratic values in the pursuit of power.