Activists say enhanced protest punishments will lead to more police misconduct

By: - November 23, 2020 1:00 am

Protests form days after the murder of George Floyd in 2020 at the Ohio Statehouse. Photo by Jake Zuckerman.

Police already have been overly aggressive in this year’s civil rights protests, some protesters say. If Ohio adopts enhanced penalties related to protests, that will only aggravate the problem, they say.

Worse, according to the activists, the bill’s provision allowing deadly force by people who feel threatened during “riots” will only encourage people to go to protests seeking violence.

In contrast, the bill’s sponsors last week didn’t acknowledge that police had engaged in misconduct in Ohio or elsewhere during last summer’s wave of civil rights protests — which were themselves touched off by police misconduct when a Minneapolis police officer knelt on an unarmed Black man’s neck for more than eight minutes, killing him.

The legislation, House Bill 784, was introduced by two lawmakers from Southwest Ohio on Thursday.

In addition to allowing people to use deadly force in what is loosely defined as a “riot,” the bill also would make felonies of what currently are riot-related misdemeanors.

Also, it would allow law-enforcement officers claiming harm in demonstrations to sue any organization supporting the demonstration for treble damages. Taken together, HB 784’s provisions are meant to intimidate protesters from turning out in the first place, said one activist.

“It’s terrifying,” Samantha Grimsley said at rally outside the Statehouse last week against HB 784. “It’s meant to keep people from wanting to come out.”

That’s not how its sponsors see it.

“Our legislation is straightforward. It embraces the right of all Americans to step forward and peaceably assemble and make their voices heard,” one of them, Rep. Cindy Abrams, R-Harrison, told the House Criminal Justice Committee. “But it also says that when you break the law, there will be consequences. Freedom and speech and freedom of assembly are important cornerstones of our democracy. Whether I agree or disagree with what someone has to say, I will defend their right to say it.”

The bill is divorced from the reality of what police did last summer during protests of the Georgy Floyd killing, activists say.

On May 29, the day Floyd was killed, Columbus police moved in, using pepper spray to disburse a crowd, part of which was throwing water bottles into the police line. In the aftermath, some smashed downtown windows — including at the Ohio Statehouse.

Whether the protests themselves or the aggressive response by police are most culpable for the damage is hotly debated. But in the ensuing weeks, police were repeatedly criticized for aggressive tactics.

For example, police on May 30 pepper-sprayed a crowd that included U.S. Rep. Joyce Beatty, Columbus City Council President Shannon Hardin and Franklin County Commissioner Kevin Boyce — all Black. Beatty said that one protester had a foot in the street as police were trying to keep the crowd on the sidewalk.

Grimsley said the summer saw many, many instances of overly aggressive policing in Columbus.

“George Floyd brought me out, but the police kept me out,” she said.

Across the country, police excesses during the protests seemed rampant. The news organization ProPublica in July reviewed 400 videos posted on social media and found “troubling conduct” in almost half of them, including improper use of pepper spray and punching and kicking protesters.

Police also went after journalists in the protests, with the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker reporting more than 328 “press freedom violations” between May 26 and June 6, Forbes reported. In Columbus, reporters — including student journalists — also reported being attacked by police during the protests.

But on Thursday, HB 784 cosponsor Sara Carruthers, R-Hamilton, didn’t acknowledge police misconduct. She said that police only use mace or pepper spray after multiple warnings. As for the pepper-spraying of Beatty and the other elected officials, she said, “I don’t know those people, so I don’t know. But I do know for a fact that (police) tell you at least three or four times ‘Please step back,’ and they do it in a very polite fashion.”

The bill’s sponsors appeared struggle to explain its provision to allow deadly force by people who feel threatened in protests.

Abrams described a situation in which a motorist might find himself or herself engulfed by demonstrators and in fear of being attacked as a situation where deadly force would be justified. Indeed, in early July a disabled Columbus man inadvertently drove amid a demonstration at Broad and High streets, where angry protesters did more than $8,000 worth of damage to his car before other protesters pulled him to safety.

But Aileen Day, who helped organize last week’s demonstration against HB 784, said its deadly force provision has other implications. She said that during last summer’s demonstrations, some people — including white supremacists — went to protests looking for violence. She said she’s terrified that the bill’s sanction of deadly force would only embolden them to start trouble and then kill.

Amid violent protests in Kenosha, Wisc., in August, police praised armed civilians for turning out to protect businesses. Then one of them, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, used his AR-15 to kill two men and wound another. His supporters say he acted in self defense, but Rittenhouse now faces homicide and other charges.

On Thursday, Ohio Rep. Jeffrey Crossman, D-Parma, wanted to know if HB 784 might incentivize armed people to go to protests looking for violence. Carruthers said, “If it was pre-planned, they will be dealt with.”

“Are they going to be charged with a homicide, or are they going to be excused under this bill?” Crossman asked.

Abrams didn’t seem to know the answer.

“I’m not a prosecutor and I am certainly not a judge and I’m certainly not a homicide detective, so that would be up to them to decide who they’re going to charge,” she said.



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Marty Schladen
Marty Schladen

Marty Schladen has been a reporter for decades, working in Indiana, Texas and other places before returning to his native Ohio to work at The Columbus Dispatch in 2017. He's won state and national journalism awards for investigations into utility regulation, public corruption, the environment, prescription drug spending and other matters.