New legislative push to criminalize protest
Jared Houston
volume 38
issue 2
April 2017

During a moment in history when thousands of people are cascading into the streets to oppose the system, 19 state legislatures want to make doing so a crime. Panicked lawmakers, who first witnessed the public outrage after Ferguson and Standing Rock and then the Trump machine, want to ban demonstrations. And keep “disrupters” far away from airports, interstates, and pipelines. Their bills aim to relegate opposition to the confines of the home by making hefty fines, jail time, and even racketeering charges the cost of dissent.

Thou shalt not disrupt. Not surprisingly, proposed legislation primarily targets economic disruption. In Iowa, blocking roads would be a felony offense for protesters. Tennessee and Florida plan to absolve angry motorists of any responsibility for running over demonstrators. Protesters who block pipelines would be levied huge fines in Colorado and North Dakota and may face charges of racketeering in Arizona if they commit “any act that damages property.”

Legislators who prioritize property rights over human lives are epitomized by Doug Ericksen of Washington state who called anti-fracking efforts that blocked railways in Olympia “economic terrorism.” A member of Trump’s EPA transition team, Ericksen’s proposal would make any protest act that disrupts the economy a felony. Ericksen claims his bill seeks merely to “protect the rights of all citizens.” This is as absurd as declaring that Citizens United aims to restore democracy. Similar logic turns protests into criminal acts, and supports free speech so long as it doesn’t interfere with pipelines and profits.

Fines and lies galore. Individual protesters are not the only ones being targeted. A bill in Minnesota targets unions by charging huge fees for returning to picket areas restricted by a court. Introduced by a right-to-work promoter, the legislation not only disparages protests but debilitates strikers by heaping fines on them for demonstrating at their own work sites.

Arizona’s dubious proposal would allow investigation and prosecution of organizations just for planning protests. It allows for the “seizure of property and assets” of organizers, which makes them subject to raids and arrests. This is by far the most overt attack by right-wing lawmakers. By distorting state racketeering laws it treats rally planners like organized crime mobsters.

Arizona State senator John Kavanaugh claims the proposed laws are intended to protect peaceful protests from “provocateurs” paid to incite violence. Actually, it’s the police who pay these “quasi-professional agents,” often violent. First-time protesters frequently find themselves entrapped by undercover cops who goad them into taking part in a crime and then make an arrest.

Dirty tricks not new. All these proposed laws codify tactics already used by law enforcement. They effectively demonstrate a collusion between legislators and police forces against the public they’re paid to serve and represent. Cops use any number of dirty tactics as an excuse for making arrests during protests. When outraged demonstrators came to the defense of immigrants in U.S. airports on January 28, trespassing laws were used to declare the gatherings illegal. Arbitrary restrictions are also used to keep protesters in a state of uncertainty over which items will be allowed into a permitted area. For example, at the Women’s March and inaugural demonstrations in D.C. groups were supposed to carefully monitor which picket signs, bags, and water bottles were deemed acceptable by “security.”

Fight back! These legislative attacks cannot be credited solely to Trump’s rise to power but they certainly are emboldened by it. While some bills came up before the election, many lawmakers responded directly to massive anti-Trump demonstrations. The same politicians have publicly ridiculed union leaders who oppose the Trump administration. They would love to see dissenters remain quietly in their living room. But their proposed laws will not squelch the voices of resistance sounding from the streets of Ferguson, Missouri to the hills of Standing Rock, North Dakota and beyond. They echo loud and clear: “Stand up, Fight back, and Shut it down!”

Jared Houston is a socialist barista in Seattle. Contact