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Republicans Push Wave Of Anti-Protest Bills In 'Alternative Universe' Backlash

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Protesters gathered this past week in Knoxville, Tenn., in Columbus, Ohio, and in Chicago, Ill., all in response to recent separate incidents of police killings. And that all occurred on the heels of a conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the killing of George Floyd last year.

A common theme for protesters is the demand for changes in police tactics and policies. But at the same time, Republican-led states are countering with new laws penalizing protesters. A new law in Florida, which the governor there described as the, quote, "strongest anti-rioting, pro-law enforcement measure in the country," end quote, denies bail for defendants accused of committing crimes during a protest until their first court appearance. And a recent Oklahoma law protects drivers who unintentionally hit or injure protesters while fleeing a protest. In fact, according to reporting from our next guest, Reid Epstein, GOP lawmakers in 34 states have introduced 81 anti-protest bills during the 2021 legislative session.

Reid Epstein covers politics for The New York Times, and he is with us now to tell us more. Mr. Epstein, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

REID EPSTEIN: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: So new laws in Iowa, Oklahoma and Florida that target protesters, with several other states considering legislation - could you give us a brief overview of what these laws would do?

EPSTEIN: Well, many of these laws do things that would make it harder for people to gather for protests. They make it easier for law enforcement to arrest and charge protesters. It lowers the definition of a - of what a riot is in many of these states. And in - as you said, in Oklahoma and Iowa and Florida, it gives license to drivers in some situations to drive through protests if they're taking up public streets.

MARTIN: I want to talk about the breadth of these laws. The Florida law includes a provision that would allow the governor to override locally elected officials if police budgets are decreased. It makes it a felony to destroy a flag or a monument, including Confederate monuments. So I have a couple of questions about this, such as, what are the arguments for including these measures in a bill that's ostensibly designed to stop violent protests? And aren't there constitutional questions implicated here? I mean, I thought that it's been long established that, you know, even objectionable things like burning a flag are considered protected forms of political expression.

EPSTEIN: Well, they certainly are, as is the First Amendment right to assemble. You know, the - what we have seen over the last year, really, since George Floyd was killed and there were protests across the country, is a Republican backlash against the idea that police departments are being defunded. And that really hits on a Republican talking point pushed by former President Trump and his cohorts for much of the last year. It's something that is a concern among Republicans even though it's not necessarily tethered to any truth or any evidence that we've seen local governments in these states pushing to defund their police departments.

MARTIN: So could you just put this in context for us, though? How many protests over the past year have actually turned violent? I mean, the...

EPSTEIN: Very few.

MARTIN: Those who are pushing these bills say that this is necessary because violence has attended these protests, has resulted in property damage and harm, and therefore, it must be contained. So how many protests over the past year have actually resulted in property damage and physical harm?

EPSTEIN: I mean, next to none. Something like 96% of the Black Lives Matter protests last year went off without any sort of violence or property damage. But the thing you have to understand is that conservative politicians at this point live and operate in an alternative universe where almost all of these Black Lives Matter protests were violent, in part because they have been fed a diet of footage from the very few that were violent over and over again on conservative media. And so that eventually trickles down to the voters believing it and the politicians acting on it.

MARTIN: We have lived in an era in which protesters associated with causes favored by the right have also taken over public spaces to address their concerns. For example, protesters opposing abortion rights, protesters who would wish to close down clinics offering abortion, for example, have taken over public spaces, you know, in the past. There has been - you know, there - in some cases, some jurisdictions have had sort of zones of - that allow people to sort of, you know, enter these spaces sort of freely without sort of being harassed. But they've still taken over public spaces. And I just wonder, have there - has there been any concern expressed by people who espouse causes favored by the right that this could also inhibit their, you know, opportunity to express themselves when they so choose in the way that they so choose?

EPSTEIN: Well, let alone the January 6 riot at the United States Capitol here in Washington. There really hasn't been any level of concern on the right or from conservatives that these laws are - would inhibit their free speech rights. You know, of course, the laws are - they're written in a neutral manner insofar as they would apply to a left-wing protest or a right-wing protest. And so it remains to be seen kind of what the prosecution of them will be once they're in effect.

MARTIN: And before we let you go, you mentioned the January 6 mob attack on the U.S. Capitol. Did any of the legislators who are advancing these bills in any of these states reference that, which we know resulted in loss of life?

EPSTEIN: The ones that we spoke with this week really were discussing - really were referencing their local protests that happened in their states over the last year - and frankly, even more than that, referencing protests that they saw on television from places like Seattle and Portland, where the - some of the protests did become violent. There is not much recognition from the Republicans that are pushing these laws that, you know, the most violent political event of the last year in the United States happened January 6 at the Capitol.

MARTIN: That was Reid Epstein of The New York Times. Mr. Epstein, thank you so much for talking to us.

EPSTEIN: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF PDP'S "BLUE SECTION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.