The VICE Guide to Right Now

Arizona Just Moved One Step Closer to Criminalizing Protests

The state senate just passed a bill that could make participating in or planning a protest that turned violent a criminal racketeering offense.
February 23, 2017, 5:09pm
Photo via Flickr user Fibonacci Blue

Republicans in the Arizona State Senate voted Wednesday to pass a new bill that would expand the state's racketeering charges to cover anyone who participates in or plans a protest that ends up turning violent, the Arizona Capitol Times reports.

The bill, which now moves to a house vote, basically makes peaceful protesters guilty by association, should an event they attend or plan turn violent. It would give the government grounds to prosecute anyone at a riot under racketeering charges, even if he or she doesn't cause anyone personal harm or property damage. By lumping rioting in with racketeering charges—usually aimed at cracking down on organized crime—it also means police officers would have the ability to arrest people planning a protest, the Capitol Times points out.

Republican state senator John Kavanagh argued that the law was necessary to crack down on the "full-time, almost professional agent-provocateurs that attempt to create public disorder," echoing the Trump administration's recent rhetoric about "liberal activists" who they believe are being paid to protest at Republican congressmen's town halls.

"Wouldn't you rather stop a riot before it starts?" Kavanagh, a former police officer, said during the state senate debate. "Do you really want to wait until people are injuring each other, throwing Molotov cocktails, picking up barricades, and smashing them through businesses in downtown Phoenix?"

Democrats, on the other hand, pointed out that rioting is already a crime, and individuals who cause property damage and commit assault during protests could easily be prosecuted individually. They argued the bill could infringe on free-speech rights and deter anyone from trying to protest peacefully against the government.

"This idea that people are being paid to come out and do that?" Democratic senator Katie Hobbs said. "I'm sorry, but I think that is fake news."

Steve Farley, another state senator, said he didn't think the law would hold up in court. "This is a total perversion of the RICO process, the racketeering process, and I see major constitutional issues down the line," he said. "I don't think this is going to do anything but get us into more lawsuits."