Since the election of President Trump, Republican lawmakers in at least 18 states have introduced or voted on legislation to curb mass protests in what civil liberties experts are calling “an attack on protest rights throughout the states.”
From Virginia to Washington state, legislators have introduced bills that would increase punishments for blocking highways, ban the use of masks during protests, indemnify drivers who strike protesters with their carsand, in at least once case, seize the assets of peopleinvolved in protests that later turn violent. The proposals come after a string of mass protest movements in the past few years, covering everything from police shootings of unarmed black men to the Dakota Access Pipeline to the inauguration of Trump.
Some are introducing bills because they say they’re necessary to counter the actions of “paid” or “professional” protesters who set out to intimidate or disrupt, a common accusation that experts agree is largely overstated. “You now have a situation where you have full-time, quasi-professional agent-provocateurs that attempt to create public disorder,” said Republican state senator John Kavanagh of Arizona in support of a measure there that would bring racketeering charges against some protesters.
Others, like the sponsors of a bill in Minnesota, say the measures are necessary to protect public safety on highways. Still other bills, in states like Oklahoma and South Dakota, are intended to discourage protesting related to oil pipelines.
Democrats in many of these states are fighting the legislation. They cite existing laws that already make it a crime to block traffic, the possibility of a chilling effect on protests across the political spectrum, and concerns for protesters’ safety in the face of aggressive motorists.