"Open Season"

Today’s Edition (Vol 2, No. 69) “Open season.”

          After police shootings of unarmed Black men and women roiled America, Republicans decided that the problem is the protests that follow those shootings, not the killing of unarmed civilians by police. No GOP-controlled legislatures have passed police reform laws, but several have passed laws designed to discourage peaceful protests. As reported in the NYTimes, GOP-controlled state legislatures are enacting “anti-riot” legislation that is intended to discourage peaceful protests. See  NYTimes, “G.O.P. Bills Target Protesters (and Absolve Motorists Who Hit Them).” Per the Times,

          A Republican proposal in Indiana would bar anyone convicted of unlawful assembly from holding state employment, including elected office. A Minnesota bill would prohibit those convicted of unlawful protesting from receiving student loans, unemployment benefits or housing assistance.

          The above provisions are draconian and would ruin the lives of protesters convicted of “unlawful assembly.” Their breadth and ambiguity are deliberate. By using sweeping language and ill-defined terms, they force peaceful protesters to reconsider exercising their First Amendment rights. But the laws do not merely subject peaceful protesters to unconstitutional restrictions, they immunize assaults on protesters. A provision in an Oklahoma bill effectively grants permission to motorists to run over protesters in the street by granting civil and criminal immunity to drivers who injure or kill protesters with their car. See KOCO News, “Oklahoma Legislature passes bill protecting drivers who hit protesters.” (“The measure would also grant a motorist criminal and civil immunity if they kill or injure someone while fleeing from a riot.”)

          Florida’s recent anti-protest bill likewise “grants civil immunity to people who drive into protesters who are blocking a road.” See Business Insider, “Florida Gov. DeSantis signs 'anti-riot' bill that grants civil immunity to drivers who hit protestors.” In other words, in some Republican-controlled states, it is “open season” on protesters—as long as the weapon is a vehicle driven into a crowd.

         For a party that claims to value the rights enshrined in the First Amendment, the GOP seems intent on repressing the right to assemble by passing laws that convert minor infractions into life-changing—or life-threatening—consequences. But it gets worse. The Oklahoma law makes every person who “participates in a riot” criminally liable for the acts of everyone else in the “riot.” Oklahoma House Bill 1674 states in its opening passage as follows:

Every person . . .  participating in any riot is punishable as follows: 1. If any murder, maiming, robbery, rape or arson was committed in the course of such riot, such person is punishable in the same manner as a principal in such crime.

          Got that? Everybody participating in “a riot” is guilty of murder if anyone commits a murder during the “riot.” The opportunity for prosecutorial abuse is obvious. If, during a peaceful protest, a fight breaks out between protesters and counter-protesters and someone is killed, everyone in the peaceful protest may be subject to criminal prosecution for murder. An aggressive prosecutor could claim that the heat-of-passion fight between counter-protesters turned the protest into “a riot” and everyone in the formerly peaceful protest is guilty of murder. Will that happen? I hope not, but Republicans in Oklahoma are sending the message that “It might happen, so don’t join peaceful protests.

          Like the wave of voter suppression bills that followed in the wake of Trump’s claim of massive voter fraud, context matters for evaluating the intent of the wave of “anti-riot” bills. The sudden, coordinated effort by GOP-controlled legislatures follows the massive nationwide protests following the murder of Georg Floyd. Millions of people protested peacefully after the murder of George Floyd. Criminal opportunists took advantage of those protests to loot and damage property. Looting and property damage are already criminal acts; the spate of new laws merely serves to threaten peaceful protesters who happen to be in the vicinity of a criminal act.

          These laws are aimed at Black protesters. They were passed after police killed unarmed Black men, women, and children—and their communities marched in the streets to express their grief and anger. GOP legislators and the right-wing media falsely claim that “Black Lives Matter” protesters are responsible for the violence. See Fox News, (9/17/2020) “Minnesota businesses lose money from BLM rioting.”

          Many of the provisions in the laws are plainly unconstitutional and will be invalidated. But the process of doing so will be long and arduous. In the meantime, the Republican Party continues in its headlong march into white nationalism—and worse. Immunizing motorists who kill protesters harkens back to the Charlottesville protests, where a neo-Nazi drove into a group of peaceful protesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring dozens of others. The neo-Nazi was sentenced to life in prison for federal hate crimes.  If the same incident had happened in Oklahoma, the defendant could have claimed immunity from state prosecution.

          The wave of voter suppression and anti-protest laws underscore the urgency of flipping at least one house in GOP-controlled legislatures—or the governor’s office. There are currently 23 states where Republicans control both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s office. (Democrats have “trifectas” in 15 states). Ballotpedia, “State government trifectas.” As we approach 2022, we must focus on reducing the number of GOP trifectas so that we can stop the passage of legislation motivated by racial animus. That topic will be a focal point of the newsletter between now and the 2022 elections.

Senator John Kennedy doesn’t “Get the idea.”

          Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana asked Stacey Abrams to list the specific provisions of Georgia’s new voter suppression bill that she considers “racist.” Stacey Abrams launched into a long list of provisions she considers to be racist, at which point Senator Kennedy cut her off, saying “Okay, I get the idea.” No, Senator Kennedy, we don’t think you “Get the idea.” If you did, you wouldn’t be defending Georgia’s voter suppression law as an election integrity bill.

The News Bubble.

          The right-wing media has begun the process of converting Derek Chauvin into a martyr for white nationalism. See Salon, “The making of a right-wing martyr: Conservatives treat Derek Chauvin's conviction as an act of war.” Other right-wing headlines: “Americans Can't Trust the Jury's Chauvin Verdict;” “Due Process in America Has Been Sentenced to Death;” and “Chauvin Trial Unleashed the Dogs of Thuggery and Revolution.” But the worst headline—because it is carried on a cable news channel that almost all Americans subsidize—was from Fox News (Tucker Carlson), “Jury Verdict in Chauvin Trial Was a Cry of "Please Don't Hurt Us".”

Reader Suggestions regarding flipping state legislatures.

          I received several dozen reader suggestions regarding organizations focusing on flipping state legislatures. I am working my way through those suggestions and will discuss them as I vet the organizations to ensure that they are still active. I have also started a project with several readers to compile a permanent list of recommendations for Today’s Edition readers for involvement. More on that in a few weeks—and a call for volunteers to help compile, digest, and update the list.

          In the meantime, the author of the newsletter Chop Wood, Carry Water sent a link to her most recent newsletter, which has helpful links for contacting your representative in Congress. I suggest you bookmark that page and consult it often. The most recent edition of Chop Wood, Carry Water includes word scripts to urge passage of H.R.1 and links to texting apps (Resistbot).

          By far, the most frequently mentioned organizations to help flip state legislatures were  Postcards To Voters and Vote Forward. Both organizations are professional and effective. Their leaders are in touch with key races around the country. They are great organizations for dipping your toe into the water of political activism. Warning: they can be habit-forming! 

          Finally, a reader sent a link to a video by Melissa Walker of Future Now Fund. In the informative 4-minute video, Walker explains why focusing on races in state legislatures is a hugely effective way to effect political change. Though the video focuses on “giving circles,” it provides a concise and compelling explanation about the importance of state races. It is a valuable training tool. Check it out: Future Now Fund – Flipping State Legislatures.”

Concluding Thoughts.

          Twenty minutes before the judge in the Derek Chauvin murder trial announced that the jury reached a verdict, a police officer in Columbus, Ohio shot four times at sixteen-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant, killing her. Only ten seconds elapsed between the time the officer exited his squad car and the killing of Ma’Khia Bryant. Like the killing of Adam Toledo in Chicago, the decisions made by the officers are measured in seconds—or fractions of seconds.  But the long-term trends that surround the killings are measured in decades. See The Guardian, “Ohio county where girl, 16, was killed is state’s deadliest for police shootings.” While there is already considerable debate about the appropriate police response in both shootings, there should be no debate about whether we must find a better solution for dealing with volatile situations than shooting to kill teenagers.

          It is understandable to feel exhausted and overwhelmed by the seemingly incessant “body cam” video of police shootings. But we must recognize that the existence of such video is a result of community activism demanding police accountability. Ten years ago, there would have been no debate about the deaths of Ma’Khia Bryant and Adam Toledo. The fact that we are able to debate the circumstances of those killings is a sign of progress. It is a tragic, almost unbearable sign of progress that will help hold police officers to higher standards of care and professionalism. That is a good development for police departments across the nation, as well as for all Americans.  

          Talk to you tomorrow!