The suffocation death of George Floyd under the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin last year, captured on video and witnessed by all of America, spawned nationwide protests and reinvigorated the national police-reform movement. Even before Chauvin’s recent criminal conviction on multiple murder and manslaughter counts, the public reaction was a turning point that continues to foster real change regarding one of the nation’s most intractable problems. And in response to this encouraging evolution, Republican state legislators across the country are now busily working to confront what they see as an urgent problem — not police violence, but protests against police violence.
No longer content with suppressing voting, the party that still hasn’t reckoned with its role in the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol now seeks to suppress peaceful protests.
The New York Times reports that Republican legislators in more than 30 states, including Missouri, have introduced more than 80 measures this year designed to crack down on protesters — twice the usual number of such bill introductions in normal years. Virtually all of them claim to address behavior like looting and violence, which are already universally illegal, raising the specter that what’s really being targeted is legitimate protest. Some, like the Missouri measure introduced in January, actually would empower violence against protests by offering legal protections to those who hit protesters with their cars.
In March, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed his state’s draconian new law into force, drawing an immediate lawsuit from opponents who claim it’s worded in a way that could punish and intimidate even peaceful protesters.
This newspaper has been consistent in its condemnation of looting or other violence during protests, as have mainstream protesters themselves — here in St. Louis and around the country. Those who are serious about seeking societal change understand that peaceful protest is the only legitimate path. And indeed, the vast majority of last summer’s protests in the wake of Floyd’s death were peaceful, according to a Washington Post analysis of police reports and other data. It found that police made arrests in just 5% of the thousands of public protests examined, with property damage in less than 4% (generally not by protesters themselves but by looters who use protests as cover) and injuries in less than 2%.
These aren’t what anyone would consider crisis-level numbers worthy of tough new laws. But then, the lack of evidence of any significant voter fraud last year hasn’t stopped red-state legislatures from passing spates of laws making voting more difficult.
In both instances, the GOP is wildly exaggerating strawman villains like vote fraud and rioting to attack hallowed elements of democracy: ballot access and peaceable assembly. This is only the latest evidence that one of America’s two major political parties has rejected constitutional norms in favor of an anything-to-win ethos. Thwarting their efforts isn’t just crucial to Democrats, but to democracy.