The aftermath of the BLM protests last summer and increased mainstream attention to racial justice issues has resulted in backlash from state legislatures across the country, including the Iowa Legislature. In an effort to stop “rioters” and show support for law enforcement, a surge of anti-protest bills have been introduced. In Iowa, SF 342—also known as the “Back the Blue” bill— has just become law and will result in a great number of negative consequences for advocates working towards social justice, especially those in marginalized communities who will be disproportionately impacted.
WHAT IS SF 342?
SF 342 covers a few different areas, such as amendments to police benefits, but most of the bill focuses on increasing penalties for “rioters” and making it harder for people to protest in a safe and lawful manner. Riots are defined as a “group of three or more people assembled in a violent manner, at least one of whom uses any unlawful force or violence against another person or causes property damage.” The penalties for rioting would be elevated from an aggravated misdemeanor to a Class D felony. “Unlawful assembly” is addressed in this bill as well; it is defined as “a group of three or more people, any of whom are acting ‘in a violent manner’, and who intend that any of them will commit an offense” and would become an aggravated misdemeanor charge rather than a simple misdemeanor. The bill also punishes the blocking of streets and sidewalks, the penalties for which vary for a “riot” and “unlawful assembly”:
Obstruction during an unlawful assembly is an aggravated misdemeanor; punishable by up to 2 years in prison and a $6,250 fine
Obstruction during a riot is a Class D felony; punishable by up to 5 years in prison and a $7,500 fine
The defacement of public property would be a felony as well; it would be a Class D felony punishable by up to 5 years in prison, a $7,500 fine, and “mandatory restitution for any property damage.”
A notable piece of this bill includes an expanded definition of “eluding” which would now include the failure to stop for officers in unmarked police vehicles. Opponents to this bill point out that this could put people at greater risk, as they may pull over for a driver impersonating an officer in an unmarked police car. Senator Kevin Kinney explains:
“I drove an unmarked car for 13 years. I didn’t wear a uniform for 13 years. I knew that if I went to stop someone and they didn’t stop, they couldn’t be charged with eluding. I’ve told my wife, I’ve told my daughter, that if you’re out on the interstate or if you’re on a rural road, and someone goes to stop you, you call 911 and you go someplace that’s lit so you can see and there are other people around. To be charged with eluding for this is crazy.”
Those in marginalized communities often must take additional precautions to ensure their personal safety. This bill would make it illegal for them to take steps to ensure they are safe when being pulled over by an unmarked car, such as driving to a safer area with others around. The penalty for eluding could be up to a year in jail.
SF 342 provides officers, and in some cases citizens, with expanded legal protections if they cause harm to protestors. This bill would add qualified immunity to the Iowa Code, meaning that officers would have immunity from civil lawsuits unless it is proven that they knowingly violated a “clearly established” law. Critics of qualified immunity, notably Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, worry that it encourages officers to be more reactionary when dealing with stressful or difficult situations, essentially allowing them to “shoot first, think later” without the worry of accountability.
One of the most concerning parts of SF 342 is the additional protections given to individuals who commit violence against protesters—whether that be police officers or private citizens. “Civil immunity” would be granted to drivers who injure someone who is blocking traffic while protesting without a permit or engaging in “disorderly conduct”. The bill states that the driver must be exercising “due care” and not acting recklessly, however it is not entirely clear what that looks like given the bill’s vague language. Opponents to BLM protestors are often unwilling or unable to distinguish between “protest” and “riot”, and SF 342 does little to make a clear distinction between the two. It is possible that individuals who wish to cause harm to protestors could use the vague language of this bill to hurt protestors and be totally protected from any legal consequences.
Under SF 342, it is plausible to imagine that we would see more cases of violence—whether at the hands of officers or other citizens—against protesters, especially those in marginalized communities. If such violence occurs, it is unlikely we will see accountability or justice for such acts.
The origins of these bills no doubt stem from the BLM protests in response to George Floyd’s death held last summer; these demonstrations and protests became the largest social justice movement in US history. Additionally, there was a widespread call for increased accountability for police officers and increased scrutiny of police budgets. Some saw these critiques as attacks on law enforcement and felt like officers were being unfairly treated. As Senator Dan Dawson stated, “The public here in Iowa, when we took it to the ballot in November, was sick and tired of seeing cops across the country and Iowa being disrespected”. SF 342 is meant to condemn rioters and show support for police officers. While proponents for SF 342 and other anti-protest bills claim that it is meant to stop looting and rioting, it is worth noting that these behaviors are already illegal. Additionally, research regarding BLM protests during the summer of 2020 found that the overwhelming majority of these protests (around 96%-97%) were nonviolent. These protests tend to utilize civil disobedience tactics to boost their message to the public, much like other successful social justice movements in the past. Civil disobedience is an incredibly effective way to raise awareness in a nonviolent manner, and most famously used by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement. As Charlene Charruthers put it, “When people disrupt highways and streets, yes, it is about disrupting business as usual, [but] it’s also about giving a visual that folks are willing to put their bodies on the line to create the kind of world we want to live in.” Blocking sidewalks and roads during protests may be inconvenient for some, but it also forces people to pay attention and may inspire them to take action. This bill seems to serve another purpose; legislators, instead of listening to activists, are taking measures to intimidate and silence protestors.
ANTI-PROTESTING BILLS SURGE ACROSS THE UNITED STATES
Bills similar to SF 342 have been introduced all across the country—93 “anti-protest” bills are currently either pending approval or have been enacted by state governments. Many of these bills target similar areas as SF 342, including higher penalties for blocking traffic, stricter punishments for “rioters”, and providing protection for individuals to commit violence against protesters. These bills feel like a collective backlash against BLM advocates and an attempt to stop social justice movements from gaining support and traction in the future.
WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT? WHAT IS THE IMPACT?
Many critics of SF 342 are concerned with how it would disproportionately impact Black Iowans. Legislators in opposition to this bill point to a nonpartisan state analysis conducted by the Iowa Legislative Services Agency that revealed a disproportionate number of Iowans convicted of rioting—71% in fact—were Black. Under SF 342, Black Iowans are at higher risk of receiving felony charges. Being charged with a felony can make it difficult to find a job or housing and can result in a permanent loss of voting rights. Iowa has one of the highest racial disparities in incarceration rates in the nation, and under SF 342 this disparity is likely to worsen.
The language of this bill is vague, making it likely that protesters will feel less compelled to utilize their First Amendment right to free speech and assembly out of fear of punishment. The bill conflates the practices of peaceful/nonviolent protests with “riots” and does not offer any distinction between the two given the vague language of what practices are deemed illegal. Many aspects of nonviolent protests are deemed impermissible in SF 342. For example, this bill seeks to penalize obstruction of roads and sidewalks, which happens often when protesting, making it near-impossible to protest without defying the new rules of SF 342.
Additionally, SF 342 proclaims that local governments can be denied state aid for violating or failing to enforce the new legislation, preventing law enforcement and local governments from exercising discretion or allowing them to consider context and circumstance when policing. This, coupled with the vague language of SF 342, will likely result in a further strained relationship between law enforcement and private citizens, especially those in advocacy groups.
WHAT CAN WE DO NOW?
This bill was signed into law by Gov. Kim Reynolds on June 17th, 2021. Advocacy groups across Iowa are considering their next steps and how to continue advocating for change under these new restrictions. The DSM Black Liberation Movement released a statement on Twitter regarding the passage of SF 342:
It is important to remember that systemic change does not come from abiding by unjust rules. This bill is meant to intimidate and deter protesters and organizers from fighting, but we must not stop fighting for what is right.
Folks can start by dispelling misconceptions about what happens at the protests and what BLM stands for. As stated earlier, the majority of demonstrations have and continue to be nonviolent. It might be helpful to remind opponents of the BLM movement about the history of the civil rights movement, as many parallels can be drawn between the two, yet one is more widely accepted. It is also important to show up to demonstrations when possible, as many advocates have noted that the higher the attendance at demonstrations the safer everyone is.
It is important to acknowledge the privileges we each hold and consider how we can use these assets to help further the movement while keeping more marginalized individuals safe. Marginalized individuals often have no choice but to keep advocating, even when bills like SF 342 make it increasingly difficult and unsafe to do so. Consider ways you can use your privileges to help raise awareness and keep these movements going. This bill is meant to stop change and halt the momentum of last summer’s protests; we must show that we are not willing to let that happen.