Following a few years of powerful Black Lives Matter protests and the encampment at Standing Rock, 2017 has continued to be a year of protests against the policies of new president Donald Trump. Not coincidentally, it’s also been a year of unusually strong legislative opposition by Republicans to organized demonstrations. In the past handful of months, lawmakers in at least 10 states have proposed bills designed to restrict protests by ramping up punishment in the form of increased fines or jail time; some, like a disturbing law proposed in South Dakota in response to the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, go so far as to permit physical harm to protesters.
Now, Arizona has joined the ranks of the aforementioned states will a bill, recently passed in the state Senate, that expands the state’s racketeering laws–originally aimed at organized crime–to include riots. The bill, SB1142, lumps rioting in with organized crime, but doesn’t require proof of someone participating in a riot to level punishment–if a person attends a peaceful protest that turns violent, their presence there, even if they weren’t connected with the violence, would be enough to merit a charge.
All 17 Arizona Senate Republicans voted in favor of the bill, which passed and moved onto the House on February 22; all 13 Democrats voted against it. The proposal would allow prosecutors to seize the assets of people who participate in protests that turn violent, and lists rioting as a Class 5 felony, punishable by two years in prison.
Democrats in Arizona say the bill incites fear through the threat of “guilt by association,” according to the Arizona Capital Times. Anyone who planned or participated in a protest is liable to be affected by the legislation. Senator Steve Farley, D-Tucson, told the Arizona Capital Times that one of the worst things about the bill is the fact that “the person who may have broken a window, triggering the claim there was a riot, might actually not be a member of the group but someone from the other side.”
Another Democratic Senator from Phoenix, Martin Quezada, added that everything that constitutes rioting–damage to property, assault–is already punishable as a crime on an individual basis. The purpose of the new bill, he said “appears to be designed to chill the First Amendment rights of people to decide to demonstrate in the first place for fear something could wrong.”
Republicans, however, are staunch in their support of the bill, despite its clear violations of the first amendment. Lumping rioting in with racketeering technically allows police to make arrests before demonstrations actually occur, which Senator John Kavanagh, a Republican from Fountain Hills told the Arizona Capital Times is a good thing, because it would “stop a riot before it starts.”
That’s a problem on all levels: The point of protest is to be able to express consensus and a point of view, and by tramping down on that right before it even finds expression in the public sphere is effectively silencing opposition. In Arizona, which has for many years been a hotbed of immigration issues–most recently, protestors gathered in Phoenix to object to the deportation of a woman under Trump’s immigration ban–the right to protest is especially crucial in the face of the state’s history of particularly punitive immigration enforcement. But if demonstrators in Arizona respond to the bill in the same way as those in other states whose lawmakers have introduced similar restrictions, they’re unlikely to let the bill silence their right to protest.