Melissa Harris Perry: You're listening to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris Perry. In the summer of 2020, thousands of residents in Atlanta, Georgia, took to the streets to protest officer Derek Chauvin's murder of George Floyd. Despite their anger, grief, and frustration, the overwhelming majority of demonstrators simply exercise their first amendment rights to assemble, speak and make their voices heard. A small group descended into more chaotic and disruptive property damage.
Now, conservative legislators in Georgia have introduced Georgia Senate bill 171. It's modeled on similar legislation passed in Florida and it would sharply curtail the first amendment rights of Georgia's citizens. For this installment of our ongoing series, Georgia: The Intersections, we spoke with Nora Benavidez, Senior Council and Director of Digital Justice and Civil Rights at Free Press.
Nora Benavidez: Georgia's SB 171 first, requires anyone who wants to protest to get a permit. It prevents spontaneous gatherings. It also then means that the kind of speech we would want to engage in, someone else would be allowed to approve or deny that speech based on whether they think it's worthy or not. Local public officials will be in charge under this bill of either approving or rejecting permit applications. Another thing that SB 171 does is, it creates contingency benefits for people who, if they become arrested and convicted for a very low level offense related to protesting, they will then be ineligible for public benefits from the state.
Another thing that SB 171 does is it increases use of police force. It would make governments civilly liable for money damages if they fail to provide "reasonable law enforcement protection" during a riot or unlawful assembly, which is a lot of long language to say, if police don't have enough presence in any given protest, they will then be fined or otherwise financially liable. I think that that's really a signal to increase militarized police force in protest settings.
Melissa Harris Perry: Clearly large events, whether they are a street demonstration or a vendor fair right, require a first seeking permits from a from a locality. Help me to understand how this is different from the current status quo around protest.
Nora Benavidez: Well, you're right that permits are sometimes necessary. Think about protests in huge settings like you say, thousands of people gathering. There are other situations however where permit requirements are referred to as a prior restraint. In first amendment language that really means the censorship of speech before it occurs. Spontaneous protests are baked into this country's history into frankly global movement building. When people want to feel like their voice needs to be heard or a cause is otherwise not being heard and should be, people come out.
They literally can take to the streets. That is something that over and over again are Supreme court and our courts around the US have said, that is a first amendment right. Censorship of speech before it even occurs is one of the most dangerous ones. It's something then that means you and I, as I mentioned, could not gather together without someone approving our ability to stand on the street in support of a view we might have.
Melissa Harris Perry: Now talk to me about the policing. Hasn't there been a movement to try to hold police accountable. I don't want to call the other side of this but to hold police accountable for their potentially violent or aggressive actions towards people who are exercising first amendment rights. This certainly seems like it is actually creating an accountability on the other side.
Nora Benavidez: Yes. The whole movement is to try to think about how can people be treated equitably. Unfortunately we see growing evidence whether it's through cameras and video footage or research that other external entities are working on to look at what kinds of violence occurred during protests. At the heart of so many of these pieces of legislation, I think there is a misconception that somehow protest is inherently criminal or inherently violent. Particularly given that the rise in these protests has occurred following racial justice protests, I often say that where racial justice protests occur, anti-protest legislation follows. The link between these protests and policing is so critical.
Unfortunately, SB 171 really uses a rather clever provision to scare police into increasing their forces during protests. The threat of financial liability is one that then motivates them to increase how they respond to gatherings which is problematic in and of itself but when you layer that then with the knowledge and the data that racial justice protests in particular have been largely peaceful, I worry that that means pro BLM or other racial justice types of gatherings will be met with more force, more intervention and less nonviolent engagement than other types of protests.
Melissa Harris Perry: Help me to understand if there is something specific about how you've seen this bill move through Georgia or the specific ways that this bill might operate in Georgia that is unique to Georgia and perhaps uniquely troubling.
Nora Benavidez: Georgia is the home of the civil rights movement. It feels like a particular slap in the face to see this new piece of legislation follow years of attacks on protest and on particularly those that would want to speak for and fight for progress. This bill is part of a larger culture war which means when progressive entities are always having to be on the defensive, we cannot dream up something better. We cannot imagine what a more equitable world will be for Georgia if we are only focused on fighting this type of horrible legislation.
Melissa Harris Perry: Nora Benavidez, Senior council and Director, Digital Justice and Civil Rights at free press. Thanks for joining us today.
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