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States revive push to crack down on protests after Capitol riot

Critics say the effort stems from the pushback to last summer's Black Lives Matter demonstrations.
Trump supporters storm Capitol building in Washington
Police clash with then-President Donald Trump's supporters who breached security and entered the Capitol building Jan. 6, 2021.Mostafa Bassim / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images file

In the weeks since the deadly Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, at least 13 states have taken up legislation to crack down on protests. The push, critics say, is a revival of broader anti-protest efforts that emerged amid the Black Lives Matter demonstrations that rocked the country in the summer.

Lawmakers in Florida, Indiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, Arizona, Maryland, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Virginia and Washington filed bills that critics claim are using the violence at the Capitol to target social justice protests more broadly. Many of the bills are similar or identical to ones introduced in those states last year.

"These legislations came about as a result to push us over the summer," said Emmanuel Cannady, the co-founder of Black Lives Matter South Bend, Indiana. "There's a cloaking that's happening right now."

Since 2016, 15 states have enacted legislation to limit protests, according to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, which tracks related state and federal legislation. A total of 17 states have pending legislation aimed at regulating demonstrations.

Ravi Perry, chair of the political science department at Howard University, attributed the sudden increase to the historic gains Republicans have made in state legislatures over the past two decades and their relationship with the Black Lives Matter movement. All of the bills were introduced by Republicans except for the one in Rhode Island.

"Two-thirds of the states are controlled by Republican governors and or Republican state Legislatures," he said. "And they are interested in cracking down on what they perceive to be the unruliness of Black Lives Matter protests.”

The majority of bills use almost identical language and suggest similar penalties, most requiring third-degree felonies for property damage, injuring a person or obstructing roadways, second-degree felonies for destroying or toppling over monuments, and first-degree misdemeanors of harassment for confrontations in public spaces, such as confronting elected officials in restaurants. The lawmakers also propose hefty fines and mandatory jail sentences ranging from 30 days to four years depending on the offense.

Florida, Indiana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Virginia and Washington bills redefine a riot or unlawful assembly as three or more partaking in "tumultuous activity."

Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire and South Carolina bills expand stand-your-ground laws to include using deadly force against protesters if deemed necessary.

Arizona, Indiana and Mississippi bills strip state benefits, including scholarships, health care and unemployment or food assistance, from anyone convicted of protest-related crimes and bars them from future state or local government employment.

Cannady and his group's co-founder Jorden Giger said the new legislation does not surprise them. Republicans in Indiana previously told them it was coming down the pipeline.

“We’re going to continue to be vigilant,” Giger said. “When Black people begin to respond to oppression with protests and mass movements, the state becomes more punitive. We’ll just continue to be careful.”

Florida introduced its bill, which mirrors a proposal that Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis first floated in September, on the night of the riot. At a Jan. 7 press conference, DeSantis framed the bill as a response to the riot and a way to prevent similar attacks.

“I hope maybe now we’ll get even more support for my legislation because it’s something that needs to be done,” he said.

Florida state Rep. Anna Eskamani, a Democrat, tweeted that DeSantis "is trying to re-write history & say his anti-protest bill is in response to what happened @ Capitol Hill. Lies. It’s about scoring political points off racial tension & consenting to uneven application of law based on skin color."

In an interview with NBC News, Eskamani cautioned that "conservatives look towards each other for inspiration. If this is passed in Florida, there's a very real concern other states will pass it." She added that the bill is "clear commentary" on Black Lives Matter because it seeks to penalize any efforts to reallocate resources from police departments and criminalizes protesters who remove or deface Confederate statues.

The bill passed out of committee Wednesday in a party-line vote, the first step in a long legislative process. Micah Kubic, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said he was hopeful that some Republicans would oppose the bill, noting that there are already legal tools in place to address violence at protests.

"We can regulate behavior when it's violent and dangerous," he said. "But that's not what this is. This is about stopping people from speaking up, in particular for racial justice and democracy."