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Experts, Organizers Weigh In On The Potential Consequences Of 'Rioting' Bill On Protests

Protesters left a message for the owner of Jack's Donuts in Indianapolis after the clashes with police in June 2020.

Protesters left a message for the owner of Jack's Donuts in Indianapolis after the clashes with police in June 2020. (Lauren Chapman/IPB News)

Indiana lawmakers want to increase penalties for some protests – including those that may cause property damage. Critics say this is just the most recent punitive measure aimed at Black Lives Matter protesters, and Indiana isn’t the only state with this kind of legislation. 

More than 100 businesses across downtown Indianapolis, Fort Wayne and Lafayette were damaged after largely peaceful Black Lives Matter protests escalated into clashes with police the last weekend of May. 

Senate Bill 198 is a response to those protests. The bill’s author, Sen. Mike Young (R-Indianapolis), said the bill is to protect businesses – not limit the free speech of protesters. 

“All this is, is an attempt to make sure we can have peaceful protests by our citizens, that their message is heard loud and clear by the elected officials and to keep our businesses safe,” Young said.

Jorden Giger disagrees. He’s a core member of Black Lives Matter South Bend, and said this legislation will only be applied to Black activists and other protesters of color. 

“And it drives home the point that Black life does not matter. That insured property matters more than Black lives,” he said.

The bill does a number of things – among them: it creates a new crime, conspiracy to commit rioting. It raises the penalties for violating curfews and rioting – if there’s more than $750 worth of damage or if someone is seriously injured. It also prohibits a person arrested during an "unlawful assembly" from being released on bail without a hearing in open court.

And it allows for civil forfeiture of property that is used to “finance a crime committed” by an unlawful assembly, which critics are concerned would extend to medical supplies and water bottles. 

READ MORE: How Do I Follow Indiana's Legislative Session? Here's Your Guide To Demystify The Process

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Indiana isn’t alone in this legislation. The International Center for Not-For-Profit Law tracks anti-protest bills in state legislatures. Senior legal advisor Elly Page said 17 states have legislation similar to Indiana’s.

"So, all things sort of taken together, I mean, if enacted, would just be – would be a catastrophe for our First Amendment rights," she said.

Page said this isn’t the first time state legislatures have reacted to protests – primarily with protesters of color – with harsher penalties. 

After 2015’s Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, states including Indiana passed legislation creating harsher penalties for protesters near critical infrastructure. After 2016’s Black Lives Matter protests shut down freeways to protest police killings across the country, some states passed laws to increase penalties for blocking traffic and later extended Stand Your Ground laws to vehicles. 

"This is a matter of lawmakers, instead of responding to the root of the protests and addressing people’s legitimate concerns and interest, creating this chilling legislation to silence them," Page said.

Indiana’s legislative session is at its halfway mark, and SB198 has been sent to the House where a committee will likely hear it. At this point, organizer Giger said he hopes people rally against this bill. But he’s not confident.

“We are relatively powerless when it comes to how and what legislation moves in the Statehouse,” Giger said.

The ACLU of Indiana is campaigning against the measure. Katie Blair, director of advocacy and public policy, called the bill “unconstitutional and harmful” to all Hoosiers’ First Amendment rights.

“Just because you don’t support one issue, you have to know, this kind of stuff – it applies to you and the issues you care about as well,” Blair said.

She said the ACLU has a team of attorneys keeping an eye on several pieces of legislation moving through the Statehouse this year, and SB198 is one of them.

Mya Perry, a core member of Black Lives Matter South Bend, said Black Hoosiers are hesitant to demonstrate because their communities are already over policed. If the bill is signed into law, it just creates more hurdles.

"These laws are not about – for anyone who's confused – these laws are not about keeping anyone safe, they're not about keeping people from rioting,” Perry said. “They're specifically keeping Black people from advocating for their freedom, for fighting for their liberation."

But she said these laws are not new. They fall into similar patterns of response to demonstrations against segregation and against slavery.

"This is exactly why we have to fight. This is exactly why we need to speak up,” Perry said. “This is exactly why we need to reimagine what our communities could look like, what our states could look like – without all of this."

Contact Lauren at lchapman@wfyi.org or follow her on Twitter at @laurenechapman_.

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