GOP bill in House targets Black Lives Matter protests, critics say

By: - January 25, 2021 4:27 pm

Protesters march down Central Avenue on June 4, 2020, as part of nationwide demonstrations against police violence sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Photo by Jeremy Duda | Arizona Mirror

Republican lawmakers are responding to the weeks of protests in the dead of summer in 2020 denouncing the local and national deaths of Black people at the hands of police locally by looking to create felonies for people convicted of “violent or disorderly assembly.”

And anyone convicted under the proposed law would be barred from working for a state or local government and would lose access to all “public benefits,” including in-state tuition breaks, unemployment aid and other social safety net programs.

House Bill 2309 introduced by Rep. Bret Roberts, R-Maricopa, would make it easier for police to arrest and for prosecutors to seek harsher felony punishments for people who commit certain acts already deemed unlawful — including assault on a police officer, aiming a laser pointer at police, criminal damage and obstructing a roadway — if that happens during a “violent or disorderly assembly.”

That would require a person to be injured or any property to be damaged if seven or more people “act together” and intend to “engage in” a riot or unlawful assembly, and woul be a class 6 felony. 

The proposal was co-signed by 26 Republicans, including the GOP leaders of the House of Representatives.

In a press release, Roberts said HB2309 is an effort to keep communities safe. 

“I find it deeply troubling that violence, rioting, and the destruction of property has become an accepted norm in cities across the nation, and local leaders doing little to stop it,” he said. “We cannot enable such activity in Arizona and should take all appropriate steps to discourage it and punish those who engage in it.”

In June, Gov. Doug Ducey used similar language when mobilizing National Guard troops in the state and issuing a statewide curfew for a week “to prevent the lawlessness we’ve seen here and in cities nationwide.”

Ducey orders statewide curfew to end protests after Scottsdale looting

The local events Ducey referred to were a night of looting in Scottsdale on May 31 and protests in Phoenix and Tucson to denounce the deaths of George Floyd in Minnesota and Dion Johnson, who was shot by an Arizona Department of Public Safety trooper who found him asleep on the side of a highway. 

But of the more than 100 arrests for “rioting” and “unlawful assembly” that took place in Phoenix between May 29 and May 31, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office charged only three people with felonies, an agency spokesperson told Arizona Mirror in August. 

For months, activists have said police and prosecutors are using arrests and criminal cases as a tool to silence their movement. In Phoenix, prosecutors have gone as far as pursuing gang charges on a group of demonstrators because they took umbrellas to protests. 

Lola N’sangou, executive director Mass Liberation Arizona, one of the groups that organized local protests in the summer and fall locally, said Roberts’s bill is directly targeting those demonstrations. 

“This is an effort to weaponize the criminal legal system to jail, intimidate, and silence protesters of police violence who are demonstrating in defense of Black lives,” she said in a statement. “Rep. Roberts didn’t show up during the Phoenix uprising; he didn’t sit down with organizers and activists to better understand what was happening. Instead he took blurbs from the media and weaponized them to introduce harmful legislation that will further enable law enforcement on community members exercising their First Amendment Rights.” 

Mass Liberation Arizona is a community group that advocates for the end of mass incarceration and pushes for policy changes in the criminal justice system. 

N’sangou also pointed out the disparate response law enforcement had when handling Black Lives Matter protests, where police often pushed demonstrators off the public streets as a pretext to initiate arrests, to the “Stop the Steal” gatherings of armed right-wing groups after the election. 

“This bill is a racist political stunt that Bret Roberts is using to ignite his base. These Trump enablers are abusing their power during this crucial moment in history to further the political prosecutions that are happening here in Arizona,” she said. “With lawmakers like Bret Roberts, Arizona will remain ground zero for racist, xenophobic, draconian laws. We need to get these kinds of politicians out of office.”

HB2309 has not yet been assigned to a committee. 

One of its backers, Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, attended the Jan. 6 riot in Washington, D.C. whose participants forced their way into the U.S. Capitol.

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