In thirty-four states GOP lawmakers have introduced more than eighty pieces of legislation aimed at political protest in the 2021 legislative session. Some of them turn misdemeanors into felonies with serious jail time, others create new felonies in vague language. At least one bill prevents those convicted of unlawful protesting from receiving student loans, unemployment benefits, or housing assistance. Other new laws immunize drivers who strike protesters with their vehicles. In some proposals, cities that defund police can be punished by the state, or which provide provisions to override such municipal budget decisions.
This new spate of legislation across the country is fundamentally racist, to be sure. It is meant to enlist the resentments, fears, and aggression of white voters who fear Black criminality, want to protect white racial heritage as enshrined in public monuments, or who are simply threatened by Black demands for equality.
More than that, these new bills deeply antidemocratic in a broader sense. Like the new legislation in Georgia curtailing the franchise, laws that severely punish political protest are meant to repress democratic expression as such. And the establishment of state authority over the municipal right to control budgets in regard to law enforcement strikes at local self-determination, something Republicans pretend to love. These facts alone should alert people to the dangers of a party committed to the path of authoritarianism.
Such laws violate the basic citizenship rights of those convicted of laws against protesting (many of which are, as written, vague and elastic). Steep fines, incarceration, denial of basic state benefits and guarantees, and indemnity for those who harm or kill protesters are hallmarks of authoritarian rule.
But this GOP state-by-state strategy isn’t racist and authoritarian simply for the sake of being racist and authoritarian. Republican leaders know that social movements can be key to party vitality. It was the Tea Party movement, after all, that mobilized a new generation of GOP voters, and produced a new generation of Republican leaders, including Trump himself.
Thus a senate bill in Indiana would bar anyone convicted of “unlawful assembly” from holding public office–legislation clearly meant to sever connections between movements and the Democratic party, connections that put Ferguson activist Cori Bush in the House of Representatives, and launched many other candidacies across the country.
Anyone on the side of progressive reform should view this new Republican strategy as no less threatening than the restrictive voting provisions enacted in Georgia (and on the way in many other states). We would not have known the fate of Michael Brown had it not been for the uprising in Ferguson (which ultimately produced a devastating Justice Department report on systematic state extortion and predation). Derek Chauvin would not have been charged, let alone convicted, had it not been for the rebellion on the streets of the Twin Cities and later around the country.
The fact even minimal racial justice requires tireless protest efforts is evidence of the severe dysfunctionality of American political institutions, and the endurance of the structures of white supremacy. This is all the more reason why the space to protest must be fiercely defended and supported. For now, it is our only democratic lifeblood.