The ability to protest is fundamental to a thriving democracy, and the drafters of the United States Constitution believed this enough to immortalize its importance as the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights. Any legislation which seeks to create challenges surrounding the right to assemble should not be taken lightly for this reason.
Yet Republicans in the Arizona Legislature are currently seeking to pass legislation that suppresses the ability to protest by making certain actions serious crimes if done while part of a protest. In the past year we have already witnessed mass arrests and political prosecutions all as result of people fighting for justice in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. We should all ask, "Why?" And how much further would law enforcement target student voices if these bills are passed?
House Bill 2309 proposed by Rep. Bret Roberts (R-Maricopa) passed on party lines in one chamber of the Arizona Legislature, laying the groundwork for disturbing public policy. The bill defines a violent and disorderly assembly as when a gathering of seven or more people, with the intent of engaging in a riot, causes damage to property or injures another person. It also makes participating in a disorderly assembly a class 6 felony.
It targets protesters by increasing the penalties of lower-level offenses to a felony if done when part of a gathering, such as increasing the penalty for shining a laser pointer into an officer’s eyes from a class 1 misdemeanor to a class 6 felony if done while participating in a disorderly assembly.
It is not hard to imagine an example in which this policy can be abused in order to arrest Arizonans for exercising their right to protest. One toss of a water bottle. One chant shouted too loud. A crowd that inadvertently blocks traffic. Then chaos as the police are enabled by the law to arrest people for merely being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
As a student at ASU, I know that along with voting, the ability to protest is one of the most impactful ways that students and other young people can demonstrate to the government that they object to its actions. And it is students’ bright futures that will be dimmed when convicted of a class 6 felony. This elevation of penalties and charging protestors with felonies would require that passionate young adults would have to choose between their future careers and their right to protest. This threat has already happened to Amy Kaper, a graduate student who faced gang charges as a result of participating in a protest last summer, ABC15 reported.
It is disturbing that Republicans in the Arizona Legislature have responded to widespread protesting against police violence by imposing the threat of a felony offense when attending a protest rather than actual police reform and accountability. The bill disproportionately affects minority groups protesting in the name of equal protection from the government. It is a clear backlash against one of the largest civil rights movements this country has seen, and the government should not be in the business of suppressing the people’s right to express their grievances.
It is not too late to prevent this horrendous public policy from becoming law. ASU students can use their voices to call into their Arizona senators and urge them to vote no on HB 2309. In the name of freedom and democracy, I urge you to contact your legislators and remind them that Arizonans deserve to protest without the threat of a felony.
Editor’s Note: The opinions presented in this letter to the editor are the author’s and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors. This letter to the editor was submitted by Taylor Miller, a junior double majoring in biological sciences and justice studies. She also interns with the Sierra Club.
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