Political organizing could soon be treated like organized crime in Arizona.
Under a GOP-backed measure just passed in the state’s Senate, anyone involved in planning a street protest at which someone commits a property crime can be charged under the state’s racketeering statute.
The bill expands state RICO law to include rioting and inciting a riot, which of course are already illegal under state law. The only meaningful change, then, is that treating a riot like a racketeering offense allows police to charge anyone involved in planning or convening a group of protesters.
“You now have a situation where you have full-time, almost professional agent-provocateurs that attempt to create public disorder,” state Sen. John Kavanagh (R) told the Arizona Capitol Times.
“I have been heartsick with what’s been going on in our country, what young people are being encouraged to do,” state Sen. Sylvia Allen (R) told the paper. Existing laws aren’t good enough, she said, because “they get thrown in jail [and] somebody pays to get them out. There has to be something to deter them from that.”
Democratic colleagues like state Sen. Steve Farley, meanwhile, tried unsuccessfully to convince Allen, Kavanagh, and the 15 other Senators who voted for the bill that they were opening the door to un-American madness.
The move “will have a chilling effect on anybody, right or left, who wants to protest something the government has done,” Farley told the paper.
Allen and Kavanagh have colorful legislative histories. Two years ago, Allen wanted to change the state’s public meeting law so that officials could hold secret discussions of public business.
Back in 2011, each lawmaker voted in favor of a measure designating an official state gun just weeks after then-Rep. Gabby Gifford (D-AZ) was shot and nearly killed. Each of them consistently opposed Democrats’ proposals that spring to tighten access to firearms and rules governing where and how they can be carried.
Allen, an avowed “chemtrails” conspiracy theorist who also believes the earth is only a few thousand years old, once accused former President Barack Obama of seeking to replace the Constitution with a “new world order.” But before those loony tidbits came out in 2013, she was at the forefront of GOP opposition to gun reform in the wake of the Tucson attack that nearly killed Giffords.
“What this country needs is a moral rebirth. That young man was terribly sick. We can lock up every single gun and it won’t heal America,” she said less than two months after the shootings. “Our country isn’t safe anymore. We’ve got to make our buildings more secure.”
Kavanagh also opposed Democrats’ ideas that spring in the legislature’s lower chamber, though he also introduced legislation designed to keep people suspected of having mental health issues from buying guns. “There was a lot of talk, but again, I don’t think there was really a need for any of these bills,” he told the AZ Capitol Times in May 2011.
In 2011, before the Tucson attacks had even faded into memory, the lawmakers said the state should not react to something that actually happened. But today, Kavanagh and Allen are proposing major changes to the state’s ultimate power to jail and impoverish citizens based upon an anticipatory belief that someday someone might toss a brick through a window.
On its own, the bill might seem like a silly, isolated proposal that would not likely survive in court if enforced. But in the broader context of the right to protest under President Donald Trump, the state GOP’s push to criminalize organizing is not so frivolous.
Federal prosecutors in Washington, D.C., are seeking stiff collective punishment for everyone who was standing nearby when a handful of black-clad Antifas marchers smashed windows and tussled with cops on Inauguration Day.
Trump’s most prominent law enforcement ally likes to say that anti-Trump protesters should be forcibly “quelled.” The president’s most reactionary online supporters are convinced that protests are not evidence of genuine populist opposition to their leader, but rather a fake insurrection fomented by wealthy liberals.
State lawmakers in North Dakota reacted to the early success of anti-pipeline protesters there by proposing much stricter criminal penalties for various protest-related activities. Lawmakers have proposed additional restrictions on First Amendment activity in North Carolina and Washington.
And a coalition of non-profit groups are concerned enough about what Trump might do with the surveillance and law enforcement powers at his disposal that they’ve launched a campaign called “Stop TrumpIntelPro.”