Commentary

Political prosecutions could increase if harsh anti-First Amendment bill becomes law

February 9, 2021 2:28 pm
Tempe black lives matter protest

People march out of Tempe Beach Park to protest police brutality against Black people. on June 11, 2020. Photo by Chloe Jones | Arizona Mirror

A recent investigative series from ABC15 called “Politically Charged” is shining light on the Phoenix Police Department and the Maricopa County Attorney’s Offices’ attacks on the First Amendment rights of protestors. Now, these agencies are getting a helping hand from state lawmakers who want to send people to prison for marching in pursuit of justice.

Take House Bill 2485, an anti-First Amendment measure. If the bill passes, people making their voices heard with tactics from the Civil Rights era — like sit-ins, boycotts, and the March to Selma — could be charged with felonies that carry prison time.

To understand the magnitude of this bill, we also must understand the elaborate tactics police and prosecutors are currently executing against their political critics. 

The Phoenix Police Department has a sordid reputation for brutalizing people who speak out against violent acts by police. The ABC 15 investigation highlighted a commemorative coin Phoenix police officers made to celebrate shooting a protester in the testicles with a rubber bullet. This horrifying detail is just one of many that formed the basis for the ACLU of Arizona’s lawsuit against the Phoenix Police Department for its violent response to people marching outside of a Trump rally in 2017. 

But the lawsuit and subsequent negative media coverage following that protest didn’t stop Phoenix Police from responding with the same viciousness in the 2020 when thousands of changemakers marched in response to the police killings of George Floyd and Dion Johnson. And this time, the police targeted and surveilled community organizers leading the movement for Black lives and brought trumped up criminal charges against them with the help of Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel. 

Adel is currently prosecuting a group of people exercising their First Amendment rights as members of the so-called “ACAB” gang. Adel knows this gang doesn’t exist: She is using Arizona’s overly broad criminal statutes to create this imaginary gang, while using the criminal legal system and the threat of significant prison time to silence people who speak out against police violence.

One of those people is Ryder Collins, a photographer from Prescott Valley. While visiting Phoenix to take photos, Collins came across a Black Lives Matter protest and started to document what was happening. In a legal filing, Collins’ attorney claims that Adel’s top prosecutor, April Sponsel, chose to withhold video evidence that proved Collins was not part of the larger group of marchers and that officers themselves were confused about why Collins was being arrested. Yet, Adel is charging Collins as a gang member anyway. 

Earlier last year, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office also charged Black Lives Matter organizers Jamaar Williams and Bruce Franks Jr. with felonies related to a protest in Phoenix. A judge tossed Williams’s case after reviewing cell phone video that exonerated Williams and proved police lied about the assaults. In Franks’s case, his attorney told the media that video footage shows it was police — not Franks — who escalated tensions and that video footage would exonerate his client.

These types of arrests and political prosecutions will only increase if HB 2485 is passed. The GOP-backed proposal creates the crime of “disorderly assembly” for groups of six or more that engage in behaviors that a police officer believes creates a danger of damage to property, obstructs law enforcement or government service, or deprives any person of the enjoyment of any right. 

‘They want to ruin us’: Activists say police, prosecutors use targeted arrests to chill protests

The language in HB 2485 is so broad that a person could be charged with serious felony offenses for simply participating in a protest, even if they themselves do not commit an act of violence or damage property. The legislation also turns a series of misdemeanors, like using fireworks or obstructing a highway, into more serious felonies that carry prison time. The legislation is a significant threat to anyone who may want to exercise their First Amendment rights when doing so might provoke the ire of a government official. 

This isn’t an exaggeration. Collins, Williams and Franks all have cases that show the lengths that prosecutors are willing to go to silence their critics and secure convictions, even when it is not in the interest of justice. 

Even more troubling — HB 2485 is just one of a series of similar anti-First Amendment bills. 

Arizona has a robust history of using protest to bring about positive change for its most marginalized communities. From Cesar Chavez boycotting for the rights of farm workers to young changemakers protesting SB 1070, protest is part of the fabric of Arizona history that should make us all proud. Had these bills been law during some of the most pivotal moments in our state, the very people who shaped our history for the better may have been deterred from using their voices or even put in prison under these harsh bills.

The seriousness of what the Phoenix Police Department and Adel have been doing cannot be understated.  This bill gives them even more ways to abuse their power and target Black and Brown people fighting for justice. It is an attack on democracy and the fundamental right to criticize our government. 

The ACLU of Arizona urges Arizona legislators to reject HB 2485 and any other bill aimed at criminalizing protest.  We will continue calling on Allister Adel to drop the charges against people who she knows are not members of any criminal street gang.

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Darrell Hill
Darrell Hill

Darrell Hill is the Policy Director of the ACLU of Arizona. He can be reached by email at [email protected] or on twitter @az_darrell.

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