The last year has changed America, in part due to the pandemic and in part due to social change. The Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum last year after the murder of George Floyd, and we finally saw the legal system take a small step towards acknowledging systemic racism in the guilty verdict of Derek Chauvin (it’s not enough, but it’s a start). After the widespread protests last year—where at least a half a million people protested in over 500 locations—some politicians have responsibly responded. They have introduced bills to limit officer immunity, prevent neck restraints and no-knock warrants, and mandate body cameras. Unfortunately, in Ohio, we have seen another type of bill gain momentum: anti-protest bills. This colloquial name is appropriately given to a series of state bills which seek to penalize people with a felony for engaging in peaceful protest.
In many ways, these bills gained more momentum after the passing of Ohio Senate Bill 33 in January. This bill penalizes people for peacefully protesting at oil and gas facilities—in addition to other “critical infrastructure” like phone poles—with up to five years in prison and potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. It is not dissimilar to bills being tried in other states and it is no coincidence that these bills are passing. After all, the fossil fuel industry is one of the most powerful and toxic enterprises in the world—we need not look further than their decision to ignore the dangers of climate change, which they have known about since the 1970s in order to chase profits. Moreover, the industry is backed by other powerful and wealthy individuals like Charles Koch, and unfortunately, wealth means control in this county.
Since January, four more bills (HB 22, HB 109, SB 16 and SB 41) have been introduced to prevent peaceful protests. Like most legislation, the bills’ language is somehow simultaneously vague and pointed to confuse and discourage anyone from taking to the streets for any reason.
Unitarian Universalist churches are helping spearhead initiatives to block these bills. Reverend Joan Van Becelaere, the executive director of Unitarian Universalist Justice Ohio, has helped form the Our Voices Together network, a coalition of over 30 organizations from across Ohio. She responded to the bills saying, “It is obvious that they [sponsors of the bills] want to prevent anything from happening this summer like it did last summer. They want to prevent Standing Rock … or any kind of protest in the streets anywhere, by anybody, for any reason.”
These bills are a direct infringement upon our First Amendment right to the freedom of speech and assembly which, if passed, would move us one step closer to a police state.
Here enters some hypocrisy as the people who introduced the bill are the same ones who argue that the Constitution cannot be changed to support LGBTQ+ rights. Regardless, while it is mostly progressive and social-justice oriented organizations protesting these bills, it is important people recognize that everyone could be impacted.
House Bill 109 penalizes people for up to a year in prison and thousands of dollars in fines for engaging in certain activities during a riot. But first, we need to know how a “riot” is defined. The bills provide a rather ridiculous definition to further scare people out of protesting. In Ohio, a riot involves five or more people who have the intent of being disruptive or committing a misdemeanor. Well, under the new bills, these misdemeanors, like blocking a street or sidewalk, are now considered felonies. So now, if a group of people—just five—walk down a street demanding equal pay or gun safety or even the “right” to not wear a mask, they could be charged with prison time. This bill could also penalize people in a festival, walking through the streets with confetti that is deemed distracting or “annoy[ing]” to a police officer (yes, the bill says the ever-ambiguous phrase, “intent to annoy”).
Here is the key: In a time of increasing division and hate, at the very least, we should be able to unite under the common goal of our constitutional rights. The First Amendment is clear in protecting our ability to gather, speak, publish and protest—and it is one of the things that makes America great. Yet here are four bills gaining power that could penalize everyone from a white nationalist to a schoolteacher to a child in a parade.
That said, history teaches us that some people and organizations will be hurt more by these bills than others. After all, we’ve already seen a series of “both-sides” arguments where the news, politicians and law enforcement conflate a Black Lives Matter protest with neo-Nazi marches. Is it not clear that one of these seeks to address and counter centuries of systemic racism while the other perpetuates the problem? It’s merely a matter of who we think is worthy of living a long life.
We should not only be scared by the prospect of these Ohio bills, but also by the ones introduced and passed in other states. In Florida, an “anti-riot” bill gives civil immunity to anyone who hits protesters with a car. In Georgia, their pending anti-protest bill is upheld for groups of only two or more people; let us repeat, two people. You and one friend saying something like “Black Lives Matter” in front of a police officer could be classified as “harassing or intimidating” and be punished with jail time.
These bills are clearly an effort to prevent public discourse and peaceful protest. They are largely being introduced under the guise of protection for first responders, despite there already being state and national laws that make it illegal to harm a police officer. The new bills only serve the purpose of dissuading protests and imprisoning people who disagree with the status quo. And we need not explain how difficult it becomes to get a job or rent a house if you have a criminal record.
So where do we go from here? Well, as our previous editorials encourage, get engaged, pay attention, speak and act. It is unacceptable—especially given the urgency of these problems—to merely stand by idly and watch these issues continue to unfold. Sign up to receive updates about the bills and how you can support Our Voices Together initiatives. This can include everything from writing and calling legislators to attending an in-person or remote protest or submitting a written testimony to be read at the state house. House Bill 22 held open testimony on Thursday, April 22 in Columbus at the House Criminal Justice Committee session; multiple people shared testimony of why these bills are unacceptable. People need to be there in-person and offer support online for each of the four bills.
Moreover, Case Western Reserve University administration also has a responsibility to act. Interim President Scott Cowen and Provost Ben Vinson recently sent out an email about the decision from Chauvin’s trial in which they cited CWRU’s support for racial justice and diversity and the progress achieved in the last year. They are not wrong that there has been some progress. In Ohio, two bills have been introduced to require implicit bias and mental health training for police officers (HB 134) and research and rename offenses that are a result of bias (SB 149). While we can remain optimistic about these bills, they barely scrape the tip of the iceberg. To comprehensively address systemic racism not only requires CWRU to look internally at its operations and the experiences of students of color, but also to support bills that promote community oversight of the police while criticizing anti-protest bills that seek to undermine our fundamental rights as Americans.
Encouragingly, Our Voices Together has a game plan and a timeline. The obvious goal is preventing all four of the bills from being signed into law. However, if this doesn’t happen, then they plan to work with the American Civil Liberties Union and Ohio Voter Rights Coalition to challenge the laws in court to declare them unconstitutional. However, if we all join this movement—which will allow future social movements to bloom—then we can prevent the bills from becoming laws in the first place. If not, think about what our country may look like in a few years. Politicians still are not taking climate change and systemic racism seriously, and anyone who protests to change that reality will be thrown in prison. Is this democracy or is this a police state?