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Black Lives Matter protest

A phalanx of police officers clad in riot gear face off with Black Lives Matter demonstrators outside the White House in Washington, D.C. on June 1, 2020 following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers the previous week. (Photo: Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)

75 Groups Ask DOJ to Oppose 'Racist' Anti-Protest Laws

"We have seen time and time again that where racial justice protests flourish, anti-protest laws follow. And we know that police and prosecutors don't need more tools or power to abuse our constitutional rights."

Brett Wilkins

Noting the often punitive and discriminatory nature of GOP-sponsored state anti-protest laws, over 75 advocacy groups on Tuesday sent an open letter to top U.S. Justice Department officials asking them to condemn such measures and to support legal action against states that pass "legislation that censors and disrupts our First Amendment right to protest racial injustice."

"These racist 'anti-protests' bills are inseparable from the wider political backlash against our movements fighting for Black liberation and freedom."
—Groups' letter

The letter (pdf)—led by Color of Change, MediaJustice, and Free Press—points out that "state lawmakers have introduced more than 100 punitive anti-protest bills since the summer of 2020, and 81 this year alone," more than twice as many such proposals as in any previous year.

Racial justice advocates say it is no coincidence that the wave of anti-protest bills closely followed the massive worldwide Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and other unarmed people of color by police and white supremacists.

"These laws, often backed by organizations affiliated with police unions, are an attempt to criminalize free speech; punish those who speak up for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities; and even offer specific protections for counterprotesters who harm us," the letter says.

In Florida, under an anti-protest law signed in April by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, it is a felony punishable by up to 15 years imprisonment for a group of 25 or more people to obstruct traffic. However, critics decried what they called the hypocritical leniency shown to right-wing Cuban-American protesters who blocked highways in Miami, Tampa, and Orlando last month.

Critics also argue that the civil legal immunity provisions in many anti-protest laws endanger lives, and would have protected people like the neo-Nazi who murdered anti-racism protester Heather Heyer with his car in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017.

"Eight states have already passed anti-protest laws this year," the letter states. "In Florida, Oklahoma, and Iowa, laws include deputizing vigilante violence by protecting drivers who injure protesters with their cars—reminiscent of state-sanctioned white mob violence of the post-Reconstruction era."

Additionally, protesters convicted of felonies under some states' anti-protest laws can be stripped of their voting rights.

The letter continues:

A proposed bill in Indiana would ban anyone convicted of unlawful assembly from holding state employment, including elected office; and bills pending in Minnesota and Oregon would disqualify people convicted of protest-related crimes from enrolling in public assistance programs—including Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and unemployment benefits.

In addition to targeting our right to protest, the laws also undermine our collective struggle for Black freedom by allowing local police to penalize municipalities that reduce funding for law enforcement and denying bail to those arrested until their first court appearance—ensuring more of our people in jail.

This is an assault on our constitutional rights, our communities, and human rights. Even the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner decried the laws for violating international human rights law and the U.S. Constitution's protection of the right to peaceful assembly, and the explicit targeting of Black Lives Matter protesters.

"We have seen time and time again that where racial justice protests flourish, anti-protest laws follow," the letter states. "And we know that police and prosecutors don't need more tools or power to abuse our constitutional rights."

"Congress has yet to act and seriously investigate the FBI for its racist designations such as the Black Identity Extremists (BIE), which are used to label movement activists as terrorists, and further legitimize its authority to stalk us and criminalize constitutionally protected activities," the letter concludes. "These racist 'anti-protests' bills are inseparable from the wider political backlash against our movements fighting for Black liberation and freedom."

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