‘Fortress DC’ Foreshadows Dangerous Anti-Protest Measures

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By Suraj K. Sazawal

Two months after Donald Trump’s supporters ransacked the U.S. Capitol, the drawdown of the National Guard and the removal of razor-wire fencing surrounding the building has begun.  “This is progress,” DC Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton said about reducing emergency security measures put in place following the January 6 attack. “This is gradually getting us back to normal, when the Capitol belonged to the people of the United States.”   Any peeling back of Fortress DC is a welcome sight, but how long will this “normal” last? 

Not for long, it turns out.  The task force created to review the U.S. Capitol Police’s failure wants to double down on more cops and cameras.  Describing the force in its report to Congress as “understaffed, insufficiently equipped, and inadequately trained”, the task force recommends adding 900 Capitol police officers (which already number over 2,000) and to equip them with more surveillance tech, like body-worn cameras and earpiece radio receivers.  It also proposes the creation of a special unit “that monitors and responds to illegal activities during First Amendment assemblies, mass demonstrations, or civil unrest.”  Members of this squad, which could be deployed against Americans protesting on the National Mall, would be “issued essential riot gear, including less-lethal equipment”.

This would be a dangerous development.  As the militarization of law enforcement becomes more entrenched, and local police look and behave more like soldiers at war, police increasingly tend to favor the use of violent tactics over de-escalation strategies. An entire generation of law enforcement has been raised on “warrior” training that teaches them to view encounters with the public as a threat. This unwarranted aggressiveness was evident throughout last summer’s protests over the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor when officers routinely assaulted or kettled protesters and journalists as a first tactic rather than as a response to any actual threat or violence.  Over 14,000 people were arrested and hundreds of people were blinded or injured from police-fired weapons, even though a comprehensive review that examined over 7,000 protests found more than 93 percent of the demonstrations against racial injustice were nonviolent.  

Lawmakers are also using the attack on the Capitol to push anti-protest legislation at the state level.  While each states’ bills contain different provisions and penalties, it’s not a coincidence that many target specific acts of civil disobedience that are popular among Black Lives Matter activists.  These bills are designed to silence Americans by increasing fines and jail time for protest-related incidents and removing liability for drivers who strike protesters.   And given the uneven way policing happens in America, these measures will be used to target already over-incarcerated and overcharged communities and not the people who stormed Congress.  

  • In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis fast-tracked a bill that would give law enforcement broad discretion to declare a protest a “riot”, and any person who participates in a protest that turns violent (through no fault of their own) could be arrested and charged with a felony.  The bill also establishes an affirmative defense for people to avoid civil liability damages when they kill or injure protesters.
  • In Oklahoma, the Republican-led House recently passed a bill that grants both civil and criminal immunity to any driver “who unintentionally causes injury or death to an individual” if the injury or death happened while the driver “was fleeing from a riot”.  The state is also considering expanding its racketeering laws to prosecute people accused of turning demonstrations violent.
  • In Georgia, local justifications that “interfere” with law enforcement responding to an “unlawful assembly” could be held liable for damages, including wrongful deaths and damages, according to a bill being considered. It also includes provisions that would restrict local governments from cutting police budgets.

Rather than addressing the underlying issues that drive people to protest, lawmakers reveal their true stripes by backing measures that will only impede upon constitutionally protected rights and endanger lives.  But as more Americans take to the streets to demand racial justice, action on climate change and to support or oppose covid-related restrictions, these voices deserve to be heard without being treated as an enemy combatant or a criminal.