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The GOP Wants to Make Sure No Cop Is Ever Held Accountable Again

Republicans have correctly realized that large-scale protests work. Now they want to stop them happening again.

Protesters in New York City last June.
Black Lives Matter protesters in New York City last June.

It’s hard to say what role the summer of unending protests played in Derek Chauvin’s conviction yesterday for the murder of George Floyd. Police killings have roiled the nation in protest before, but the sustained, expansive, and far-reaching nature of 2020’s protests came as close to carrying actual political weight as any mass movement has in the past six decades.

The trite observation has been made many times: it’s absurd that it took high definition video of a crime and a millions-strong public show of force to produce one murder conviction, but without either of those parts, I’m not sure Derek Chauvin would be in custody today. It’s unsurprising, then, that the GOP is working as hard as it can to make sure none of this happens again.

From the New York Times:

Republicans responded to a summer of protests by proposing a raft of punitive new measures governing the right to lawfully assemble. G.O.P. lawmakers in 34 states have introduced 81 anti-protest bills during the 2021 legislative session — more than twice as many proposals as in any other year, according to Elly Page, a senior legal adviser at the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, which tracks legislation limiting the right to protest.

Here’s what these laws do, also from the Times:

Republican legislators in Oklahoma and Iowa have passed bills granting immunity to drivers whose vehicles strike and injure protesters in public streets.

A Republican proposal in Indiana would bar anyone convicted of unlawful assembly from holding state employment, including elected office. A Minnesota bill would prohibit those convicted of unlawful protesting from receiving student loans, unemployment benefits or housing assistance.

And in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed sweeping legislation this week that toughened existing laws governing public disorder and created a harsh new level of infractions — a bill he’s called “the strongest anti-looting, anti-rioting, pro-law-enforcement piece of legislation in the country.”

It’s clear what the intent is here. The GOP has correctly realized that large-scale protests have been successful at shaping public opinion and extracting some official concessions from the status quo. The first line of defense against this has been to stigmatize and vilify protesters, which has worked remarkably well on both conservatives and liberals to date, but loses some of its rhetorical force every time a cop shoots someone else and the protesters’ central point gets reinforced.

What the GOP needs is a system where, on the micro level, police face few repercussions for shooting people, and on the macro level, the civilians who are most at risk of being shot have no apparatus for resisting state power. This is what these bills aim to do. They aim to criminalize protest and legalize violence against protesters enough to break the back of future movements they face in the street. They want these laws in place as soon as possible, so that Daunte Wright and Adam Toledo and Ma’Khia Bryant’s killers face the path of least resistance as they negotiate a legal system already weighted in their favor. The goal is for Derek Chauvin to be the last sacrificial lamb, for the George Floyd protests to be the last ones that credibly challenge the power of the police and the state.

It goes without saying that this impetus will spill over from the issue of racial justice. These laws, once in place, will still be in effect the next time a savvier Republican candidate manages to game the Electoral College and courts on the way to winning an election. They’ll be in place the next time a U.S. president uses their absurd unilateral powers of war to invade another country for the sake of private enterprise.

The good news is I don’t think it will work. We saw, time and time again, that despite the forces levied against them, protests continued. Violence begets violence, and public opinion will always hold some sympathy for the party that is seen as fighting back. Every deployment of federal thugs to a city, every protester rounded up in an unmarked van, makes the “thin blue line” narrative that much weaker. That narrative can’t last forever: these bills are being put in place because it’s already starting to crack.