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Lawmakers Push For Protest Restrictions In The Year Since George Floyd's Killing

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In 2020, as the news of the death of George Floyd spread around the country, so did many peaceful protests calling for justice and police accountability.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) I can't breathe. I can't breathe. I can't breathe. I can't breathe.

CORNISH: Some of those protests escalated into riots or were met with powerful police crackdowns. Now, one year later, there's a wave of legislation, especially in Republican-led statehouses, adding new penalties for protesters who get out of line. And there are also bills that put limits on how and when and where people can gather. In Florida, the governor signed into law a measure he described as the strongest anti-looting, anti-rioting, pro-law enforcement piece of legislation in the country. Here to talk more is Blaise Gainey of member station WFSU in Tallahassee.

BLAISE GAINEY, BYLINE: Hey. How you doing?

CORNISH: Katerina Sostaric of Iowa Public Radio in Des Moines, welcome to you, as well.

KATERINA SOSTARIC, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.

CORNISH: And to round this out, we're going to hear from a reporter from a state where there is a push to reinforce protesters' rights. Bente Birkeland in Colorado of Colorado Public Radio, speaking to us from Denver, welcome to you.

BENTE BIRKELAND, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.

CORNISH: Katerina, some 20 states are considering some version of an anti-protest or anti-disorder bill. Lawmakers in Iowa passed a protest bill last week nicknamed Back the Blue. What does it do? How does it compare to what we're seeing in other states?

SOSTARIC: The bill lawmakers passed here in Iowa has some similar themes with those passed in other states. And I've been talking to researchers who say that lawmakers will often target protest strategies that get the most media attention and draw the most attention to the message of the protesters, things like blocking highways and camping out by government buildings. In Iowa specifically, the bill raises penalties for offenses that can be related to protests like rioting, unlawful assembly, obstructing streets and sidewalks. This bill also makes it a felony to damage any public property and makes it illegal to walk on a highway, something that protesters did in Iowa last summer. And it gives immunity to some drivers who hit protesters. That part is narrowly written, but it's concerning for some in that it's coming after a lot of protesters across the country were hit by cars last summer.

CORNISH: So, Blaise, I want to talk about what's happening in Florida as well. How different is this from what Katerina is describing in Iowa?

GAINEY: So mostly everything being done in Iowa is also part of the new law changes here. Some things I didn't hear Katerina mention in Iowa's version is a new criminal charge created by Florida's law. It's called aggravated rioting. It gives people in groups of 25 or more a felony for causing bodily harm, property damage upwards of $5,000, threatening or attempting to use a deadly weapon and endangering motorists. The new law upset many because if one person gets out of line or out of character, the whole protest - all protesters will then be arrested. Additionally, the new law would punish cities who decrease funding to their law enforcement. And it was seen as a direct response from Governor Ron DeSantis to the Defund the Police motto that was heard during a lot of protests last summer. You know, during a press conference to promote the new law, Governor Ron DeSantis made it very clear who the law aims to protect.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RON DESANTIS: Anybody who wears the uniform in service of protecting the public - this bill will make very clear the state of Florida stands with you.

CORNISH: Bente, I want to talk about what's going on in a state like yours, right? You're in Denver. And you're hearing, I guess, sort of opposite messaging than what we're hearing, say, in Florida, as we just heard in that cut from Governor DeSantis. What are lawmakers trying to do in Colorado?

BIRKELAND: Absolutely. That's right. Democrats control the legislature here. And they actually had a bill that would have tried to protect protesters and First Amendment rights, so it tried to set limits on when law enforcement could disperse a crowd. But the main sponsor, Senator Jeff Bridges, has now changed that bill into a study to get more support for it. He says the goal is still to improve how law enforcement responds to that gray area between a peaceful protest and a riot. And so he said he knows that this happens, that a small group of people show up at a protest intending to break windows, cause damage, violence. He thinks police should be able to isolate those individuals while still protecting the First Amendment rights of everyone else who was at that protest.

CORNISH: There's such a political divide in this country, looking at the events of the last year. What's been the reaction to these proposals, to these new laws? Katerina, let's start in Iowa.

SOSTARIC: Different law enforcement groups in Iowa say that they appreciate the support from lawmakers. And Republican lawmakers say they ran on backing the blue, and that's what they're doing with this bill. But Iowans who are pushing for racial justice didn't see any progress out of this past legislative session. Last summer, about two weeks into widespread protests in Des Moines, the legislature unanimously passed a police accountability bill that included a ban on police chokeholds in most cases. And leaders from both parties promised to do more on policing and criminal justice reform. State Representative Ras Smith, a Democrat, led that effort. And during debate on this bill that has protest restrictions in it, he mentioned people killed by police officers, and he asked Republican leaders why they made promises and didn't deliver this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAS SMITH: Just because you've chosen to turn your back on the hard work doesn't mean that I will. I'm naive enough to keep pushing forward. I'm so afraid to become a Drew Edwards or a George Floyd moment that I cannot conceive stopping my pursuit to help us find a more perfect union.

SOSTARIC: Smith has said this bill feels like retaliation for progress made last summer.

GAINEY: Yeah, Katerina, similar to what Ras Smith was saying there, Democrats felt the same way here. And advocates for free speech and students were also upset with the legislation, while law enforcement officers and other first responders were probably happy for the bill. Along with the passage of the bill, each first responder in the state receives a $1,000 bonus during the upcoming fiscal year. And as there's been pushback all along, as soon as the bill was signed, the ACLU and NAACP filed a lawsuit saying it was unconstitutional and also dissuades protesters from exercising their right to free speech.

CORNISH: Bente, you are at the statehouse, as we said, in Denver. How are people reacting there?

BIRKELAND: Well, Colorado has really been focusing on criminal justice reform, not on protesters or protests, per se. Last summer, the state passed a sweeping law enforcement accountability measure, and that had almost universal support. And it requires body cameras and gets rid of qualified immunity for law enforcement, among a host of other things. But I would say that new proposals this session to limit how often arrests result in jail time and better-defined use of force have run into significantly more opposition from Republicans and law enforcement. The partisan differences have deepened, in part because of the national political climate over the last few months. And then also, Colorado saw an escalating crime rate in virtually every category.

CORNISH: That was Bente Birkeland of Colorado Public Radio in Denver.

Thank you.

BIRKELAND: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: Blaise Gainey of member station WFSU in Tallahassee.

Thank you, Blaise.

GAINEY: Thank you.

CORNISH: Katerina Sostaric of Iowa Public Radio in Des Moines.

Katerina, thank you.

SOSTARIC: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.