Some of the protest-related legislation has stalled in its early stages after public scrutiny. But other proposals, especially those in Republican-dominated state governments, could face an easier road to passage. The Arizona Senate approved one such bill in a party-line 17-13 vote last Wednesday. Senate Bill 1142 makes two key changes to state criminal laws: First, it expands the definition of rioting to include “damage to the property of another person.” Second, it adds rioting to the list of offenses that could fall under racketeering.
State Democratic legislators warned that SB1142’s provisions could theoretically be used in tandem to bring charges against peaceful protesters at a demonstration where other participants use violence. “I’m fearful that ‘riot’ is in the eyes of the beholder and that this bill will apply more strictly to minorities and people trying to have their voice heard,” State Senator Andrea Dalessandro told the Arizona Capitol Times last week.
Their Republican counterparts disputed those claims, with State Senator John Kavanaugh telling the Capitol Times that it was aimed at “full-time, almost professional agent-provocateurs [sic] that attempt to create public disorder.” He also indicated the bill’s racketeering provisions could be used by police to investigate protest organizers ahead of time. On Monday, the Republican speaker of the Arizona House said he wouldn’t hear the measure, effectively killing the bill.
Arizona’s SB1142 isn’t the only piece of legislation in statehouses targeting recent tactics. One popular act of civil disobedience used by both Standing Rock protesters and Black Lives Matter demonstrators is blocking highway traffic. But the tactic also drew criticism from conservative lawmakers who say it endangers lives. In North Dakota, the state House considered a bill that would shift the liability burden from drivers who unintentionally hit protesters with their cars to the protesters themselves.
“This bill puts the onus on somebody who's made a conscious decision to put themselves in harm's way,” Representative Keith Kempenitch, a Republican and the bill’s sponsor, told the Star-Tribune in January. “You can protest all you want, but you can't protest up on a roadway. It's dangerous for everybody.”
While the bill eventually failed on a 50-41 vote, legislators are mulling similar bills elsewhere. Tennessee lawmakers introduced their own civil-liability bill in February. After a group of protesters blocked traffic on Interstate 94 in St. Paul, Minnesota, last year to protest the death of Philando Castile, state legislators drafted a bill in January that could send future demonstrators to jail for a year for obstructing highways. Iowa’s Senate File 111 would make blocking highways a felony offense with a possible five-year prison sentence.