'Crisis opportunism': Republicans in 3 states introduce bills criminalizing protest in wake of Capitol attack

'Crisis opportunism': Republicans in 3 states introduce bills criminalizing protest in wake of Capitol attack
Trump supporters outside the U.S. Capitol Building, January 6, 2021, Tyler Merbler

Progressives are sounding the alarm that a handful of Republican lawmakers are exploiting the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6 by an insurrectionist pro-Trump mob to push for anti-protest bills that critics say do not aim to stem the tide of right-wing extremism but instead criminalize dissent by those seeking social change and justice.

In the immediate aftermath of last week's invasion of the halls of Congress, GOP lawmakers in Florida, Mississippi, and Indiana introduced bills that "do not represent new strategies designed specifically to prevent future right-wing insurrections... [but] draw from a set of policies that numerous state legislators introduced [last] summer in order to appear tough on protests against police brutality," The Intercept reported Tuesday.

According to the news outlet:

Florida's and Mississippi's bills in particular represent a new brand of anti-protest laws on steroids, creating penalties for a wide array of activities, from damaging monuments to obstructing traffic. The bills include measures that could encourage harsh law enforcement responses to protests as well as provisions meant to prevent local governments from reducing police funding.

The narrower Indiana bill would broaden the definition of rioting—which the Florida bill did as well—and would criminalize camping at the Indiana state Capitol. The Mississippi bill would also allow the state to strip unemployment benefits from anyone who pleads guilty to participating in disruptive protests.

The Intercept noted that lawmakers are using last week's events as an excuse to build on earlier efforts to penalize left-wing civil disobedience. This is "a renewed push to criminalize certain kinds of dissent," including protests against police violence as well as the fossil fuel industry.

"Civil liberties advocates warn that the three bills are only the tip of the iceberg," The Intercept reported, stressing that the new bills should not be interpreted as straightforward responses to the assault on the Capitol. Instead, the news outlet said, this legislative push is an attempt to "rebrand" previous anti-democratic attempts to crack down on protests, taking advantage of outrage over the right-wing attack on the Capitol to inhibit demonstrations for progressive causes.

"Look closely" at the bills, said Alleen Brown, who co-authored the article with Akela Lacy. "They're aimed at police brutality protests, not right-wing insurrection."


In a critique of "righteous bipartisan weaponizing of this crisis," journalist Christopher Cook argued on Tuesday in The Progressive that the tools we create in response to the January 6 insurrection "will certainly be used to tamp down mass protest from the left... It's easy to see the Trump-incited insurrection as sheer madness fueled by utter falsehoods, not genuine dissent or 'protest,' but that won't keep it from being weaponized to expand the policing of protest throughout the United States."

In fact, Cook pointed out, Florida's Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis "promoted a new bill 'cracking down on Black Lives Matter protests... [on] the same day insurrectionists were storming the Capitol." DeSantis used the riots in Washington, D.C., attended by several neo-Confederates, as a pretext to "make taking down Confederate statues a felony."

"When the acts of sedition spew from toy-soldier white supremacists and venomous self-proclaimed 'patriots' motivated by outright lies," it is easy to call for more surveillance, but "do we wish to... suppress every type of uprising, every act of sedition, no matter the cause or agenda?" Cook asked.

"As the planet burns, our healthcare system crumbles, and our economy grows more vastly unequal and untenable, there may well be a need for some nonviolent rebellion from the left," Cook concluded. "We must remain vigilantly clear-eyed about protecting the right to nonviolent protest and dissent."

There is considerable overlap between critiques of crisis-driven attempts to criminalize dissent and warnings of the repressive implications of passing new laws targeting "domestic terrorism."

As Common Dreams reported on Monday, progressives say the federal government's failure to crack down on far-right extremists is a matter of insufficient will, not a lack of power. If law enforcement agencies are given an enlarged toolbox, critics say, those weapons will be used to stifle constitutional protections of free speech and the right to air grievances before the state.

Alluding to the significance and fragility of ongoing fights against Enbridge Energy's Line 3 project and against police violence, The Intercept's Ryan Grim noted that enacting "new laws criminalizing protest [and] expanding the definition of what counts as terrorism... [will] make pipeline companies" and Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.)—who last summer advocated for invoking the Insurrection Act and deploying the military to quash racial justice demonstrations—"very very happy."

Spencer Ackerman, a reporter at The Daily Beast, on Wednesday spoke with Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) about the danger of allowing January 6 to be turned into a "new September 11" that is followed by a punitive curtailment of civil liberties. While the progressive lawmaker has demanded accountability and supports Rep. Jamaal Bowman's (D-N.Y.) efforts to launch an investigation into the right-wing insurrection, she warned against greenlighting an expansion of the national security state.

As "the first woman in Congress to wear a hijab, someone who came to Minnesota as a refugee from Somalia, Omar... embodies everything that people who wear Camp Auschwitz sweatshirts consider the imminent end of America: political power in the hands of a left-wing Black Muslim woman," Ackerman wrote.

He continued:

Trump, who is not incompetent when it comes to demagoguery, fed on a generation of security politics, regnant in both parties, that expressly demonized people like who look and worship like Omar. A rhetorical fixture at his rallies, his supporters would chant send her back. Omar's career shows the promise of American democracy despite such entrenched forces. But it also shows how a War on Terror is reactionary wildfire. Imagine for a moment what the mob would have done if the men who entered the Capitol brandishing zipties had gotten ahold of her...
[And yet,] Rep. Omar, with the weight of all of that on her shoulders, is warning against a domestic War on Terror.

Omar told The Daily Beast that notwithstanding the "traumatizing" nature of last week's events, "we must not give into fear or allow ourselves to be terrorized by those who seek to harm us. The answer is not a broader security structure, or a deeper police state."

"We should not lose sight of our disgust at the double standards employed against white protesters and black ones, or against Muslims and non-Muslims," Omar added. "But at the same time we must resist the very human desire for revenge—to simply see the tools that have oppressed black and brown people expanded."

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