The deadly terrorist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia over the weekend — and President Trump’s equivocal response — is the latest sign of an emboldened far-right movement whose race-based vision for America is flatly incompatible with any notion of democratic pluralism.
But Saturday’s attack on counter-protesters at a white supremacist rally also comes at a time when the freedom to conduct popular protests — itself an integral feature of democratic participation — is increasingly at risk.
Since the start of the year, lawmakers in at least 20 states have introduced legislation that would restrict or rein in protesters in various ways, according to a tally compiled for The Daily Democracy by the National Conference of State Legislatures, which tracks state-level legislation.
The spate of anti-protest legislation this year appears to have been a response to energetic popular movements on behalf of progressive causes, including Black Lives Matter, the Moral Mondays movement, and the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline. And it’s in sync with a broader anti-democratic campaign that in recent years has sought to undermine grassroots organizing and local democracy, restrict voting rights, and more.
Among the anti-protest legislation are bills introduced in Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, and North Dakota that could make it harder to prosecute a repeat of Saturday’s attack, in which a white supremacist is accused of plowing his car into a crowd of people protesting a racist rally, killing one person and injuring scores more. All four measures say any motorist who unintentionally hurts or kills someone blocking a highway is not guilty of a crime.
An Oregon bill would require community colleges to expel any student who participates in a “violent riot.” Other states have introduced bills that punish protesters who participate in “economic disruption.”
Arkansas and South Dakota have passed anti-protester bills into law. Both Republican-backed laws increased the penalties for protesters who obstruct highways, a common protest tactic.
The push to undermine popular protests also appears to have a supporter in the White House. While campaigning last year, Trump suggested that a protester at one of his rallies “should have been roughed up.” He also said that he would pay the legal bills of a man accused of sucker-punching a protester at a different rally, though he later backed off that pledge.
For some, the events in Charlottesville crystalized the same feeling of anger against progressive protesters that appears to have driven the wave of state legislation. A police officer in Springfield, Mass. is being investigated after posting video of the attack on Facebook with the comment: “Hahahaha love this, maybe people shouldn’t block road ways.”