Some Republican governors have proposed legislation that would increase penalties for demonstrators amid the continuing unrest which has brought hundreds of thousands into the streets to protest racial injustice and police brutality.
The proposed legislation comes at a time when Republicans have ramped up rhetoric against the nationwide protests echoing President Trump’s message of “law and order,” which has become a central talking point in his reelection campaign.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), who has openly opposed calls to reduce police department budgets, announced legislative proposals that would criminalize what he called “riot activity,” creating felony-level offenses carrying mandatory jail time for infractions committed at protests including destroying property, striking a law enforcement officer, using lasers or fireworks against officers and blocking hospital entrances.
Although the Constitution upholds the right to peaceably demonstrate, “the constitution does not provide the right to riot, to rob, to loot, to set fires, to physically harm anyone or anything," Abbott said Thursday, speaking at the Dallas Police Association headquarters, flanked by police union officials and other Texas leaders.
In Texas, “participating in a riot” is currently considered a misdemeanor offense that carries a maximum of six months in jail, and defined as a gathering of seven or more people that in part, creates a danger to a person or property, the Texas Tribune reported. Abbott’s proposal would elevate this to a felony.
In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) announced new legislation this week aimed to tamp down on protests, making it a felony for groups of seven or more to cause property damage or injury to others. If passed, the legislation would make it a felony to obstruct roadways and topple monuments and would institute a mandatory minimum jail sentence for striking a law enforcement officer during a protest, including with projectiles.
“Our right to peacefully assemble is one of our most cherished as Americans, but throughout the country we’ve seen that right being taken advantage of by professional agitators, bent on sowing disorder and causing mayhem in our cities,” DeSantis said in a statement. “I will not allow this kind of violence to occur here in Florida.”
But these measures have been met with swift backlash from critics who say the move to crack down on protesters is an infringement on first amendment rights.
Micah Kubic, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, called the governor’s proposal “undemocratic” and said it was hostile to Americans’ shared values. “This effort has one goal: silence, criminalize and penalize Floridians who want to see justice for Black lives lost to racialized violence and brutality at the hands of law enforcement,” he said in a statement.
In August, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) signed a bill into law making camping on state property, including the Capitol grounds, a felony. It also increased the penalties for protesters who spit on police, block streets or deface property with graffiti.
The legislation came in response to nearly two months of demonstrations in front of the Tennessee Capitol in Nashville over the summer, where protesters demanded the governor’s action on racial injustice and police brutality in response to the police killing of George Floyd in May.
“We are using a bazooka to go after a house fly here,” Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro (D) said on the Senate floor, according to the Tennessean. “Are we really saying that a citizen of this state can ... have a felony record because they camped on public property? That should be a bridge too far.”
But the bill’s backers say that the laws will protect law enforcement and prevent autonomous zones, like the one in Portland, Ore.
“We’ve seen lawlessness play out in the previous months here. We’ve seen it play out in a big way across the country. We don’t want that to be playing out again in our state,” Lee said. “Law enforcement will be instructed to follow the law, to enforce the law.”
But some protesters see the bill as a restriction on their First Amendment rights. “This is all about criminalizing peaceful protesting,” Justin Jones, 24, told The Washington Post in August.