Arizona activists have renewed their focus and condemnation of a bill that would harshen penalties for various crimes committed during an unlawful assembly following the three guilty verdicts against former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd.
House Bill 2309, which passed the House on a party-line vote of 31-27 with two nonvotes, would create a new crime called “violent or disorderly assembly” and upgrade several misdemeanors including obstructing a road, pointing a laser at an officer, andcriminal damage between $250 and $1,000 into felonies when committed during such an assembly.
It would also enact a minimum of six months in jail for someone convicted of assaulting an officer, which is already considered aggravated assault under Arizona law.
“While it will affect everyone, HB 2309 specifically targets Black organizers, activists and their protests as we fight for Black lives,” Bruce Franks Jr. said during a Wednesday press conference at the state Capitol. “It gives police and prosecutors, who have already proven that they will weaponize the legal system against their critics, more power to politically prosecute us.”
For subscribers:Here’s how an Arizona bill to harshen crimes during protests could impact protesters
Renewed calls against HB 2309
Floyd’s death sparked mass demonstrations protesting the police killings of Black men and women with demands that police departments are defunded and officers are held to increased standards of accountability.
Phoenix police shot rubber bullets and pepper-sprayed protesters and arrested hundredsduring the initial protests held in the days after Floyd’s death, and Scottsdale police have arrested over 50 in connection with looting and vandalism at Scottsdale Fashion Square after a protest in May. Although protests stretching into the summer and fall were much smaller and tamer, police arrested dozens on charges ranging from walking in the road to shoving an officer’s shield.
The bill’s primary sponsor, Rep. Bret Roberts, R-Maricopa, previously told The Arizona Republic that he introduced the bill with the hope it might make protesters reconsider becoming violent. He said he has no qualms with people exercising their First Amendment right to protest, but that protests must remain peaceful.
But civil rights advocates and legal experts say HB 2309’s true purpose is to chill people from protesting with overly broad language that could allow police to arrest protesters if they’re in the vicinity of someone else committing crime but aren’t involved themselves.
Bruce Franks Jr., a former member of the Missouri House of Representatives who now lives in Arizona and works with the group Mass Liberation Arizona, said HB 2309 will only give law enforcement more tools to silence Black voices.
Franks, who was arrested in connection with a protest last year before having the charges dropped, said history has shown police shut down protests without merit.
“We already know what happens when police get to deem something unlawful,” he said. “It results in false charges. It results in targeting. And now it’s resulting in the dismissal of almost every single case they brought upon us last year.”
Franks is one of hundreds of protesters who police had arrested last year during various protests but ultimately had their charges dropped.
‘He thinks it’s going to silence us. It’s really just going to piss us off’
Even if HB 2309 is signed into law, Franks argues it would have the opposite effect he believes Roberts intends for it to have.
“HB 2309 is not going to do what the bill’s sponsor thinks it is going to do. He thinks that it’s going to deter us from going to the streets. He thinks it’s going to silence us. It’s really just going to piss us off.”
Kenneth Smith with the Unity Collective and West Valley NAACP spoke at another Wednesday press conference organized by the Black Mothers Forum at the Capitol where he urged for HB 2309 to be vetoed.
“The media, as well as everyone, asked us ‘What do you want? What are you marching for?’” Smith said. “We are here to tell you we need HB 2309 to be vetoed. That’s what we’re marching for.”
Smith lambasted the bill as a racist tool designed to silence minority voices begging for change and equality.
“Black people and brown people are coming together in unity to tell you we need change now,” he said. “The time is now. We can no longer sit idly by and allow policies to be written against us in a movement of our Black bodies so that this child does not grow up in a system that is broken.”
Smith urged allies to pressure Gov. Doug Ducey to veto the bill should it make it to his desk and called on Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams to collaborate with the community to create actionable solutions over what he considers empty rhetoric.
Where HB 2309 is now
HB 2309 is currently in the Senate where it has passed both the Judiciary and Rules committees.
Although the Rules Committee deemed the bill proper for consideration on Monday, a Senate staffer said a section of the bill that would criminalize the desecration of venerated objects would need to be amended or removed entirely to be constitutional, citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s finding that flag burning is protected under the First Amendment.
Senate President Karen Fann, who chairs the committee, told the staffer that the section needed to be altered before she would allow it to proceed in the Senate.
“If it gets out of committee, I’m going to need you to keep me in the loop on this one,” Fann told the staffer during the committee hearing. “Because I will not take it to caucus until we know there’s a resolution to this, OK? ‘Cause no matter how much we hate seeing our flag burned, you know, it is unconstitutional to stop it and so that piece at least has to come out of it.”
Should the Senate amend HB 2309, it would have to go back to the House for a final vote before reaching Ducey’s desk.
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