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Thursday, August 17, 2017

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.

Show up for a protest, and end up losing your home, car, and retirement account? How about losing everything over just being at a meeting or on a conference call?

Arizona State Senator Sonny Borrelli (R-AZ) has introduced an amazing bit of legislation into the Arizona senate, which has already passed—it’s in the House now. The bill would hyper-criminalize any sort of organized political dissent if any person involved with that dissent (including, presumably, agent provocateurs) were to engage in even minor “violence,” so long as that violence harms the “property,” regardless of value, of any person — including a corporation.

They’re doing this by expanding the Arizona RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) law to include conspiracy to “riot” among the offenses RICO can be used against. Not unlike parts of the Patriot Act being used against wannabe terrorists, the RICO laws are a powerful blunt instrument that have been used successfully to take down mobsters who have done a very good job of insulating themselves from their crimes.

Inspired in part by the takedown of Al Capone for tax fraud and mobster Rico “Little Caesar” Bandello, the 1970 federal law was one of the first to, in a really big way, make it possible for prosecutors to go after an entire “group” of people, rather than having to target criminals one at a time. As such, it relies heavily on previous laws that had defined “conspiracy” to be a felony.

And much like Richard Nixon used the nation’s drug laws to break the backs of the anti-war and civil-rights movements, Senator Borrelli and his Republican friends apparently want to break the back of anti-GOP, anti-Trump protests with the same type of police-state overkill.

This is merely a new twist on an old Republican strategy.

In 1999, John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s former domestic policy chief, told Dan Baum in an interview with Baum about Nixon’s war on drugs:

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

The war on drugs was devastatingly successful, and continues to be: Nixon and his successors have locked up large parts of the African American community nationwide (leaving many unable to vote for the rest of their lives), and drug busts (often setups) were used with spectacular success at the local level against SDS and other anti-war activists in the 1960s and 1970s.

Now the power of another law (RICO) designed to deal with organized crime (and expanded in recent years to include “terrorism” and “animal activism”) is about to be mobilized in a similar fashion against anybody who supports any anti-Republican demonstrations (that cause any “property damage”) in Arizona.

As you can read in the proposed law, the realm of crimes into which RICO can now be applied has been expanded from “terrorism” (a recent addition) to “riot,” which, itself has been redefined to include: “A person commits riot if, with two or more other persons acting together, such person recklessly uses force or violence or threatens to use force or violence, if such threat is accompanied by immediate power of execution, which EITHER disturbs the public peace OR RESULTS IN DAMAGE TO THE PROPERTY OF ANOTHER PERSON.” (All-caps from the actual text of the proposed law.)

The new law also adds in the current Arizona “riot” law (13-2903) which essentially defines “riot” as the use of “force,” and redefines “force” as anything that “disturbs the public peace.” Using a bullhorn? Chanting?  Singing? Or merely meeting and planning to do same (“threat” with the ability of “immediate power of execution” meaning you have the ability to stand outside and sing)? You’re disturbing the public peace.

AZ 13-2903 reads: “A person commits riot if, with two or more other persons acting together, such person recklessly uses force or violence or threatens to use force or violence, if such threat is accompanied by immediate power of execution, which disturbs the public peace.”

So, let’s say the local chapter of #Indivisible or #OurRevolution or #BlackLivesMatter is planning (“threatening” under this law) to bring a group of people to the offices of Senator Borrelli or any of his GOP colleagues, or just to march through downtown Phoenix to protest Trump’s bigoted policies after a particularly outrageous Executive Order.

And let’s further imagine that somebody who wants to shut down that group has infiltrated it (be they from the police, the Klan, or the Black Block). The protest happens, and the infiltrator throws a stone and breaks a window. Or some people complain that their “peace” has been “disturbed,” even if no rocks were thrown.

And you donated $25 to the group that organized the protest (but had no idea a violent infiltrator was going to show up). Or you went to a meeting of the group. Or you were on a conference call for protest planning. Or you were in the crowd on the day the stone was thrown or the “peace” was “disturbed.”

Under the civil asset forfeiture laws, being used hand-in-glove with the new RICO law, everything you own can now be seized – instantly, and before you’re even convicted of anything. And once you’ve admitted you were a “co-conspirator” – you donated, showed up, were on the call, or even a member of the chat-room – you’re now facing serious time in prison.

So, as is usually the case with RICO prosecutions, the prosecutors bring you in and offer you a deal: help us bust the leadership, and we’ll let you go. So you end up being the stone-thrower at the next demonstration. Or you go to prison.

And, in the meantime, the local or state police department has already converted your home, car, and retirement accounts into cash and used them to buy a new tank for the police station.

And to the inevitable clueless-to-their-privilege white person who says, “Riot laws aren’t controversial and they’d never use laws like this so broadly; that would be wrong,” please talk with any person of color and ask how the “uncontroversial” drug, loitering, and, for G-d sake, even taillight laws have been enforced.

The families of Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Samuel DeBose, and Sandra Bland (among thousands of others), and increasingly in Trumpworld, anybody who looks Hispanic or Muslim, or even has a Muslim-sounding name like the son of Muhammad Ali, can tell you something about selective enforcement of the law in America.

This is not what democracy looks like.

Thom Hartmann is an author and nationally syndicated daily talk show host.

IMAGE: Protesters walk in the streets downtown during another night of protests over the police shooting of Keith Scott in Charlotte, North Carolina, U.S. September 22, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake

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