Nine people, including an independent journalist, have been arrested under a controversial new law in Louisiana that increases penalties for trespassing near oil and gas pipelines. While the circumstances of the arrests appear murky- three of the activists say they were not trespassing when they were forcefully arrested by off duty police officers working on behalf of the pipeline developer- the arrests are considered among the first related to a bevy of anti-protest measures that have popped up in state legislatures across the country.
Designed to create fear and confusion and suppress dissent, over 60 bills have been introduced by lawmakers since 2016 that escalate penalties for participating in or organizing peaceful protests that turn disruptive and restrict where and how protesters can demonstrate.
The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL) has created a searchable database tracking the status of anti-protest legislation and executive orders. The most egregious measures include:
Americans are right to be concerned and outraged, especially because these reactionary bills come amid a revival of disruptive (but peaceful) protests across the U.S. Nearly one million students walked out of class recently to signal their frustration with the status quo on gun violence. Massive demonstrations have taken place in dozens of cities in response to the killing of unarmed black men by law enforcement. And the grassroots movement behind #NODAPL led to thousands of people engaging in protest and acts of civil disobedience to stop the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota and surrounding states.
So, when South Dakota lawmakers quickly passed a law granting the governor new powers to arbitrarily limit protest on public lands and roadways and broaden the criminal trespass statute, it was not seen as a coincidence. “We see all of these bills,” Johnson Bridgwater, head of Oklahoma’s Sierra Club, told the Intercept, “as nothing more than corporate America being fearful of how successful the Standing Rock protests were.”
While the majority of these draconian measures have been rejected, including ones in Arizona, New Jersey, North Carolina, Georgia, Oregon, and Wisconsin that would have expanded the definition of “riot” or “domestic terrorism” to include protest activities, several states (and Congress) are still considering measures that would turn acts of civil disobedience, like trespassing, into felonies with serious consequences.
Anti-protest legislation still being debated:
Face covering bills
Protest as crime bills
Corporate-backed infrastructure bills
Speech on campus bills
The fact that they were introduced is troublesome and dangerous. It is through protest, an essential part of American life,that we are given the ability to speak out and challenge events and injustices. That power should be protected, not infringed upon, so that it can continue to shape and influence our American polity.