Cops and their allies have pushed hard for new wave of stringent anti-protest bills

Since last summer, police have lobbied for a crackdown on "riots," with new laws that give them even more power

By Jon Skolnik
Published June 3, 2021 6:00AM (EDT)
A man kneels before a line of police in riot gear on Middle Street in Portland during a protest. (Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
A man kneels before a line of police in riot gear on Middle Street in Portland during a protest. (Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

Following the global wave of demonstrations after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year, Republican state legislatures mounted a counterattack, introducing a deluge of "anti-riot" bills designed to make it easier for law enforcement to clamp down on demonstrations perceived as disorderly.

According to a PEN America report from late April, Republicans have proposed at least 100 "anti-riot" bills in 33 states from last June to this March. These measures aim to address protest-related activities by greatly expanding the definition of "riot," granting criminal immunity to drivers who hit "rioters" with their cars, suspending state benefits for those who participate in a "riot" and increasing penalties for demonstrators who block traffic. 

Over the past several months, the bills have sparked progressive pushback over the perception that they grant the police unchecked power to crack down on nonviolent protests and chill free speech rights. Indeed, reports now make clear that police organizations and their allies have played an outsized role in introducing and supporting these measures, often by advocating and lobbying for them behind the scenes. 

According to new research released this month, police officers, police unions and law enforcement lobbyists have supported one or more "anti-riot" bills in at least 14 states since last June. "Anti-riot" bills in 19 states have been sponsored by legislators with backgrounds in law enforcement. Because lobbying records are inconsistent from state to state, these figures may be underestimates. 

"Almost nobody knows right now that police are pushing for these bills," Connor Gibson, an opposition researcher who compiled the data, told Salon in an interview. "People are not surprised that police are lobbying for bills that let police off the hook and push the blame to protesters. But I don't think that should be the measure of why this trend is important."

Consider H.B. 445 in Alabama, which broadens the definition of "riot" and heightens the legal penalties against protesters who block traffic. The bill, which has been indefinitely postponed, was sponsored by at least nine state lawmakers who are or were affiliated with various police departments and/or organizations. The bill's primary sponsor, GOP Rep. Allen Treadway, is a retired Birmingham assistant police chief. Two co-sponsors, Reps. Allen Farley and Phillip Pettus, respectively served as police chief in Satsuma Police Chief and an Alabama state trooper.   

In North Carolina, a similar bill is being considered that was sponsored by a total of seven police-affiliated lawmakers. The bill's two primary sponsors, Reps. Charles Miller and Allen McNeill, respectively served as deputy chief of the Brunswick County sheriff's office and chief deputy of the Randolph County Sheriff's Office.

"Police culture is deeply embedded in our state legislatures," Gibson said, observing that "many legislators have conflicts of interest when it comes to holding the police accountable."

These bills are also heavily influenced by police organizations like Fraternal Order of Police and the Sheriffs Association, whose state chapters have lobbied for several different "anti-riot" bills throughout the country since June. 

Consider Florida's H.B. 1, which became law in April. The comprehensive measure – which makes "aggravated rioting" a felony, denies bail to those charged of a misdemeanor during a protest and grants civil legal immunity to motorists who drive through demonstrators blocking a road — was supported by the Florida Sheriffs Association, the Florida Police Chiefs Association and Florida Smart Justice Alliance, a broad coalition of organizations focused on the state's criminal justice and corrections system. 

Barney T. Bishop III, the CEO of Florida Smart Justice Alliance, explained his organization's stance in an interview with Salon, disputing the notion the H.B. 1 would embolden those on the far right to retaliate against social justice protesters. 

"It's not about emboldening anybody," he said. "Florida is as opposed to the Proud Boys and the far-right groups as we are to the far-left groups."

His explanation of the bill's aims, however, suggest otherwise. "Protesters today feel that they can go anywhere they want, do anything they want — beat on cars, cuss and try to incite violence from police by screaming in their face," Bishop added. "There are people that will incite violence. Most of the time it will be the people in the protests themselves or the people behind the protests, like George Soros and antifa and BLM."

There is little evidence, however, that last year's wave of social justice demonstrations after the Floyd murder was plagued by violence. According to a report last September by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), about 95% of all demonstrations from last May to last August were peaceful. By comparison the report notes that "authorities have used force — such as firing less-lethal weapons like tear gas, rubber bullets, and pepper spray or beating demonstrators with batons — in over 54% of the demonstrations in which they have engaged."

Nora Benavidez, director of PEN America's U.S. Free Expression Programs, affirmed ACLED's findings, telling Salon that the Republican-backed "anti-riot" bills "are trying to solve a problem that doesn't exist. Legislators are predicating their bills on a circumstance that characterizes protests as somehow inherently criminal."

As in the Florida case, a newly-enacted "anti-riot" bill in Iowa, S.F. 342, was backed by various police-affiliated organizations, including the Iowa Peace Officers Association, the Iowa State Police Association, the Iowa Fraternal Order of Police, the Iowa State Patrol Supervisors Association and the Iowa State Sheriffs' & Deputies' Association, according to state lobbying records

Interestingly, the Iowa Peace Officers Association and the Iowa State Sheriffs' & Deputies' Association were initially "undecided" on the bill after it was introduced in February. At the time, the bill simply sought to prevent police officers "from being discharged, disciplined, or threatened with discharge" if their names appeared on the "Brady list," which tracks officers who might lack credibility in certain legal cases involving the police.

Since then the bill has morphed into full-fledged "anti-riot" legislation, which won the support of the two law enforcement associations. 

Adam Mason, state policy organizing director for the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement Action Fund, told Salon that the Iowa bill reflects the overrepresentation of police interests in the state's legislature.

"We absolutely believe in having a citizen legislature," Mason said, "but that also means we need to have a diversity of opinions. That would mean having legislators from all walks of life. It seems these legislators feel like they don't have to listen to community members because they're coming from concentrated backgrounds in law enforcement."

Bishop disagreed. "There's no more conflict of interest than a doctor selected to the legislature proposing medical legislation," he told Salon.

A major reason why "anti-riot" bills are controversial are their provisions which specifically grant civil and criminal immunity to drivers attempting to flee "riots" — especially given the violent counterattacks social justice protesters have seen in recent years. In 2017, during the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, an alleged white supremacist rammed his car into a throng of counter-protesters, killing a woman named Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others. The driver was later convicted of first-degree murder. More recently, in February of this year, an admitted Klansmen drove his truck into a group of peaceful protesters near Richmond, Virginia, though nobody was seriously injured. 

Last year, NPR reported that there had been "at least 50 vehicle-ramming incidents since protests against police violence erupted nationwide in late May," a marked increase from prior years. 

Gibson told Salon that the uptick in vehicle-related violence against protesters is precisely what makes the recent surge in "anti-riot" bills so concerning. "You can't be a politician and not be aware that there is an undercurrent of informal vigilante justice," he explained, "where the police are emboldening white supremacists to take things into their own hands."

Most of the driver immunity provisions are predicated on two conditions: that the driver was fleeing a "riot" in order to protect themselves and that they exercised "due care" in the course of colliding with demonstrators. But the reality in court might not be so straightforward. 

Sgt. Fred Lepley, senior director of the Iowa State Police Association, which supported S.F. 342, told Salon that incidents in which protesters threaten drivers are often "difficult to comprehend" without proper context. 

Lepley said that the provisions are designed to "assist citizens that are attempting to remove themselves from a dangerous situation but find that protesters are purposely forcing their hand by standing in front of the vehicle refusing to let them leave and possibly attempting to get at the driver to do harm. In many of these cases the driver is driving very slow and the protesters intentionally get in front of the vehicle, placing themselves in harm's way."

Oklahoma Rep. Justin Humprey, a Republican who sponsored H.B. 1674 — which also contains a driver immunity provision — echoed Leple, saying by email that "this bill is about protecting the public" and that it "enables a person to protect their family and themselves from criminals who demonstrate intent to commit harm."

Salon could not find evidence that recent demonstrators have deliberately impeded traffic in an effort to provoke or harm drivers. 

Other states where police organizations have actively supported "anti-riot" bills include Tennessee, Texas, Washington, Ohio, Missouri, Kentucky, Indiana, Idaho, Connecticut, Arkansas and Arizona. 

Though most of these bills have surfaced within the last couple of years, Gibson told Salon that the Republican sense of urgency for their implementation has no logical or historical basis. "Rioting was already a dangerous, illegal type of behavior," he said, "but people still did it. These politicians are deluding themselves if they think that making rioting extra-illegal is going to change anything. They're trying to throw peaceful protesters in jail because that is more of a thorn in their side than the riots are."


Jon Skolnik

Jon Skolnik is a staff writer at Salon. His work has appeared in Current Affairs, The Baffler, AlterNet, and The New York Daily News.

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