Last Wednesday marked two years since the police murder of George Floyd sparked an international outcry against police brutality. An estimated 14,000 were arrested for participating. Although 90% were released, there are still people incarcerated or facing charges (The Guardian). Since then, our right to protest has been under attack, threatening both those incarcerated and our freedom of speech to rally against other injustices.
Last week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed HB 1571 into law, making it a second-degree misdemeanor crime to picket or protest outside a Floridian’s place of living with the intent to harass or disturb that person. This was in response to protests held outside Supreme Court justices’ homes after a leaked draft of their opinion to overturn Roe v. Wade (Orlando Sentinel). This comes a year after the state passed HB1, an “anti-riot” law designed to quell “violent protests.” The law allows “authorities to detain arrested protesters until a first court appearance and establishes new felonies for organizing or participating in a violent demonstration.” (It also just happens to allow officials to appeal when municipalities cut police budgets). It was challenged and deemed unconstitutional by a federal judge and is currently under appeal (NPR).
• Know your rights as a protestor, including how to protest, your rights if police engage you during a protest, and how to take photos or video at a protest.
• Support prisoners and defendants from the George Floyd protests.
• Check the status of anti-protest legislation in your state. Take action accordingly using the tracker provided by the International Center for Non-Profit Law.
Since the protests of summer 2020, at least 33 states have proposed over 100 pieces of anti-protest legislation (NBC News). Legislation in at least eight states has actually passed (Pew Charitable Trust). Most target specific contemporary protest movements. Arkansas, Kansas, and Montana introduced legislation increasing penalties for protesting near oil and gas pipelines. In Alabama, a law was introduced to charge protest organizers permit fees to protest in spaces…after a series of protests against Confederate statues in public parks (Pew Charitable Trust).
Even before the death of George Floyd, anti-protest legislation targeted marginalized communities. In a report entitled Arresting Dissent: Legislative Restrictions on the Right to Protest, PEN America found that most bills targeted movements by Indigenous and Black communities. Read the full report here.
Critics emphasize that even though many of these laws are likely to be deemed unconstitutional (if they haven’t already), they intentionally seed doubt about our right to protest. The right to protest is supposed to be protected by the First Amendment. Local and federal governments may be legally allowed to place restrictions, but that doesn’t detract from our inherent right to gather for a cause or initiative. According to the ACLU, your rights to protest are strongest when you’re on public property or on private property with the consent of the property owner. These rights are available to you regardless of which stance you take (i.e. whether you’re advocating for or against abortion). You can also capture photos and videos (ACLU). As long as you abide by other rules and regulations, you should not be persecuted for protesting.
Some people question whether protests are even effective, which is understandable. Two years after the death of George Floyd, we have yet to pass significant legislation to protect citizens from policing (M4BL). Despite decades of rallying, Roe v. Wade is likely to be overturned this year. And no matter how many people take to the streets to demand gun control, school shootings still occur. But what protests are effective in is raising awareness and building urgency around the need for change. It might not create immediate change, but changes the course of our future for the greater good. In the process, they often mobilize people that were before unwilling – or unaware – to take a stance.
Last week, hundreds of people protested outside the annual NRA convention, held days after the despicable mass shooting at a Uvalde, TX elementary school. Texas implemented a law dictating that anyone involved in a “riot” could be penalized and liable financially for any damages, even if they didn’t cause them. But the law also defines a “riot” as “the danger of property damage or injury that that group of seven people or more” pose, which is quite tame when considering the scope of potential engagement about an issue like this (Houston Public Media). If we don’t protect our right to protest, we risk losing moments like this to have our voices heard.
• Since the protests in the summer of 2020, over 100 pieces of anti-protest legislation have been introduced or implemented across the U.S.
• These laws often target marginalized communities.
• Although protests rarely lead to immediate change, they help to raise awareness, mobilize people, and emphasize the urgency of social problems.