Summer Protests Spark Bills Aimed at Curbing Unrest
Triggered by the killing of George Floyd in May 2020, as well as other incidents of police brutality against Black Americans, the Black Lives Matters protests last summer may have been the largest, most widespread protests in American history.
While most of the protests were predominantly peaceful, several high-profile protests were tense, destructive, and sometimes violent. State legislatures took notice, and many have proposed legislation that would crack down on protests.
Including Oklahoma. Especially Oklahoma. According to the International Center for Not-For-Profit Law (ICNL), the U.S. state has at least 10 different bills filed to address mass protests. The state has proposals to terminate any state employee convicted of a riot or unlawful assembly offense. One bill would allow citizens to sue the state or localities that do not react forcefully enough to quell protests. Another would require anyone convicted of participating in a riot or unlawful assembly to pay for any property damages associated with the disturbance. And in a trend seen across several states, Oklahoma would impose steep penalties for anyone impeding traffic while providing a liability shield to people who harm protesters while driving vehicles.
Note, the bill would not shield someone who goes out of their way to target a group of people with their vehicle, as when James Fields was convicted of murder for the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. But the line of distinction between an event such as that and slowly inching your way through a mob that is pounding on your vehicle is not well defined.
In an Associated Press report on the Oklahoma measure and similar measures around the United States, the sponsor of one of the Oklahoma bills, Representative Kevin McDugle, said “It’s not going to be a peaceful protest if you’re impeding the freedom of others. The driver of that truck had his family in there, and they were scared to death.”
He was referring to an incident in July 2020 when a pickup truck pulling a horse trailer drove through a Black Lives Matter protest on a Tulsa, Oklahoma, highway. Three people were seriously injured.
There’s always another side to the coin, however. From the same article: “State Rep. Emily Virgin, the Democratic leader in the Oklahoma House, said she wishes her Republican colleagues would focus on the underlying issues of police brutality and systemic racism instead of seeking ways to punish protesters. ‘It seems that some of my colleagues took the wrong lesson from the demonstrations we saw this summer,’ Virgin said.”
Many state legislatures are considering bills that further define and increase penalties for impeding traffic. The tactic was chronicled in a 2016 Washington Post article, and it has only increased as a protest traffic since then. "If you can find a way to jam up a highway—literally have the city have a heart attack, blocking an artery—it causes people to stand up and pay attention," Nathan Connolly, a historian at Johns Hopkins University, said in the article.
So what do the new bills propose to crack down on obstructing traffic? A Mississippi bill introduces a mandatory sentence of 25 days in jail and a $500 minimum fine. In Indiana, a bill makes blocking traffic as part of protest a felony that carries up to a six-year prison sentence.
In addition to impeding traffic, Oklahoma is one of a few states seeking to provide protections for drivers who injure protesters. Others include Iowa, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, South Carolina (which also specifically decriminalizes threatening protesters with a firearm if a person believes their life or personal property is being threatened), Tennessee, and Utah.
Other trends are also evident in the proposed laws. One is to drastically increase the potential legal and civil liability for destruction or defacing public monuments or buildings. Another is forcing all who are convicted of an offense related to a disturbance to be financially liable for damage or loss caused during the disturbance, whether or not they were specifically involved in the action that resulted in damage or loss. Still another is making it easier to hold organizations who promote or fund a riot or unlawful assembly liable.
This is not the first time that well publicized protests inspired legislative proposals to crackdown on protests. After the Charlottesville incident in 2017, several states considered laws to shield drivers then. And just because bills are proposed, it does not mean they will become law. However, a wave of environmental protests over the past five years have led to laws across dozens of states to restrict protests around pipelines. As evidenced in the list below, states have continually returned to those laws to widen restrictions and strengthen the penalties involved.
The ICNL monitors state legislatures for bills related to protests. Here is a rundown of potential and enacted laws since the beginning of 2020:
Alabama – HB 133 broadens definition of riot and riotous acts, implicates all people involved in a protest if any part of the protest damages property or injures people, makes it harder to obtain bail, and assesses penalties for vandalizing public monuments.
Arizona – SB 1784, HB 2485, and HB 2309 broaden the definition of riot and increases punishment and fines for related offenses. They also increase penalties for certain tactics, such as interfering with traffic.
Arkansas – HB 1321 introduces new penalties for protesting near critical infrastructure, such as gas pipelines.
Florida – SB 484 and HB 1 broaden the definition of riot and riotous acts, and they assess harsher penalties based on crowd size and for certain tactics such as impeding traffic or harming or defacing statues, flags, paintings, displays, or other memorials.
Georgia – SB 171 broadens the definition of unlawful assembly, making it tougher for permitting, and it assesses harsher penalties for certain tactics such as impeding traffic and defacing property.
Indiana – HB 1205, SB 96, and SB 34 broaden the definition of riot and increase punishment and fines for related offenses, including such actions as excessive noise, defacing property, overnight protests, impeding traffic, and wearing a mask while engaged in such actions. Additionally, SB 198 assesses penalties for funding a protest deemed unlawful and increases punishment for failing to leave an unlawful protest or for violating a protest-related curfew.
Iowa – SSB 1140 and HF 430 increase punishment and fines associated with riots, unlawful assemblies, and related offenses including impeding traffic. HF 251 is similar to the other state bills and also provides immunity for drivers who injure protesters.
Kansas – SB 172 introduces new penalties for protesting near critical infrastructure, such as gas pipelines.
Kentucky – A new law enacted in March 2020 increases penalties for protesting near critical infrastructure, such as gas pipelines. In addition, SB 211 and HB 164 increase penalties for certain tactics, including impeding traffic and overnight protests.
Maryland – HB 645 and HB 198 make it an offense to impede traffic and expand the definition of disturbing the peace.
Minnesota – SF 355, HF 129, and HF 254 introduce new penalties for protesting near critical infrastructure, such as gas pipelines. HF 466 would restrict public assistance benefits, such as food assistance or unemployment, from anyone convicted of a protest-related crime. Additionally, HF 303 increases penalties for impeding traffic.
Mississippi – A new law enacted in June 2020 creates new restrictions and penalties for protesting near critical infrastructure, such as gas pipelines. In addition, SB 2283 increases penalties for impeding traffic.
Missouri – SB 66, HB 56, and SB 26 introduce new penalties for protesters, including those blocking traffic, and shields those who harm protesters from civil or criminal liability.
Montana – HB 481 introduces new penalties for protesting near critical infrastructure, such as gas pipelines.
Nebraska – LB 111 broadens the definition of riot and riotous acts, and it would assess harsher penalties for injuries that occur as a result of a riot, inciting riots, impeding traffic, and defacing public property.
New Hampshire – HB197 broadens defense for those using deadly force against protesters.
New Jersey – S 3261 and A 4991 increases penalties for impeding traffic. A 3760 broadens the definition of riot.
New York – A 5121 increases penalties for inciting a riot.
North Dakota – HB 1240 holds protesters involved in a riot financially liable for property damaged in that riot.
Ohio – Enacted a new law in January 2021 increasing penalties for protests near critical infrastructure. HB 109, SB 41, and SB 16 increase or introduce penalties for such actions as impeding traffic and excessive noise; increase criminal and civil liability for organizations involved in funding or organizing protests; and hold protesters and organizations that helped organize or fund protests liable for property damage and the cost of law enforcement related to the protests.
Oklahoma – SB 15, SB 806, HB 2464, HB 2215, HB 2096, HB 1578, HB 1561, and HB 1674 create new penalties for certain tactics including impeding traffic, defacing property, or causing an annoyance; provide protections for drivers who hit protesters; require those convicted of a riot or unlawful assembly to pay for property damaged as a result; and increase liability for organizations that support protests.
Also in Oklahoma, HB 1565 terminates employment for any state employee convicted of inciting a riot or of unlawful assembly. HB 2094 allows civil lawsuits against state and local governments for not taking reasonable action to mitigate damage or injury from protests.
Rhode Island – HB 5001 creates new penalties for impeding traffic.
South Carolina – HB 3491 broadens the definition of riot, creates new penalties for impeding traffic and for overnight protests, and shields those who use deadly force or point a firearm when confronted by a “mob.”
South Dakota – Enacted a new law in March 2020 increasing penalties for protesting near critical infrastructure, such as gas pipelines. The state also enacted another new law in March 2020 that broadened the definition of riot.
Tennessee – Enacted a law in August 2020 that broadens the definition of riot and increases penalties for certain tactics including impeding traffic and overnight protests. SB 451 and HB 881 create a new “aggravated riot” offense. HB 513 and SB 843 further increase penalties for certain tactics including impeding traffic, and shield drivers who hit protesters.
Utah – Enacted a law in March 2020 that increases penalties for protests that disturb legislative or government meetings. SB 138 increases penalties for impeding traffic and shields drivers who injure protesters.
Virginia – SB 5079 increases liability for law enforcement who do not take action to limit riots or unlawful assemblies. SB 5058 and SB 5074 increase penalties for protesters who impede emergency vehicle access and who remain at a gathering deemed a riot or unlawful assembly.
Washington – SB 5456 and SB 5310 creates or increases penalties for impeding traffic and for “swarming” a vehicle in a roadway.
West Virginia – Enacted law in March 2020 increasing penalties for protesting near critical infrastructure, such as gas pipelines.