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Under Arizona bill, police would be able to arrest peaceful protesters to prevent a riot

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Protest clash

A protest in Tucson on Feb. 16 took a hostile turn after demonstrators entered traffic lanes on West Congress Street. A short melee with police ensued.

PHOENIX — Claiming people are being paid to riot, Republican state senators voted Wednesday to give police new power to arrest anyone who is involved in a peaceful demonstration that may turn bad — even before anything happens.

SB 1142 would expand the state’s racketeering laws, now aimed at organized crime, to also include rioting. It would redefine rioting to include actions resulting in damage to others’ property.

By including rioting in racketeering laws, the proposal would permit police to arrest people who are planning events. Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, a former police officer, said if there are organized groups, “I should certainly hope that our law enforcement people have some undercover people there.”

“Wouldn’t you rather stop a riot before it starts?” Kavanagh asked colleagues during debate. “Do you really want to wait until people are injuring each other, throwing Molotov cocktails, picking up barricades and smashing them through businesses in downtown Phoenix?”

But Democrats say the heart of the legislation is guilt by association, and is giving the government the right to criminally prosecute and seize the assets of everyone who planned a protest and everyone who participated.

Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, posed the possibility that the person who broke a window — triggering the claim there was a riot — might not be a member of the protesting group, but rather someone from the other side.

Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Phoenix, acknowledged that what’s planned as a peaceful demonstration can sometimes go south.

“When people want to express themselves as a group during a time of turmoil, during a time of controversy, during a time of high emotions, that’s exactly when people gather as a community,” he said. “Sometimes they yell, sometimes they scream, sometimes they do go too far.”

Quezada said, though, that everything that constitutes rioting already is a crime, ranging from assault to criminal damage, and those responsible can be individually prosecuted. He said this bill appears to be designed to chill the First Amendment rights of people who decide to demonstrate in the first place for fear something could go wrong.

Kavanagh said the chilling effect is aimed at a specific group of protesters.

“You now have a situation where you have full-time, almost professional agent-provocateurs that attempt to create public disorder,” he said. “A lot of them are ideologues, some of them are anarchists. But this stuff is all planned.”

Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, said the new criminal laws are necessary. “I have been heartsick with what’s been going on in our country, what young people are being encouraged to do,” she said.

Allen agreed with Quezada that there already are laws that cover overt acts, but she said they don’t work. “If they get thrown in jail, somebody pays to get them out,” she said. “There has to be something to deter them from that.”

Farley, however, said the legislation does far more than simply go after those who might incite people to riot. He warned Republicans that such a broad law could end up being used against some of their allies.

For example, he said, a “tea party” group wanting to protest a property tax hike might get permits, publicize the event and have a peaceful demonstration.

“And one person, possibly from the other side, starts breaking the windows of a car,” Farley said. “And all of a sudden the organizers of that march, the local tea party, are going to be under indictment from the county attorney in the county that raised those property taxes. That will have a chilling effect on anybody, right or left, who wants to protest something the government has done.”

Sen. Katie Hobbs, D-Phoenix, said the legislation is based on a false premise of how disturbances happen. “This idea that people are being paid to come out and do that?” she said. “I’m sorry, but I think that is fake news.”

Sen. Andrea Dalessandro, D-Green Valley, had her own concerns. “I’m fearful that ‘riot’ is in the eyes of the beholder and that this bill will apply more strictly to minorities and people trying to have their voice heard,” she said.

The 17-13 party-line vote sends the bill to the House.

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