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Repression and Backlash

The tangle of policy responses following the 2020 uprisings shows how both Republicans and Democrats failed to meet the moment.


At around 5 p.m. on May 31, 2020, the Sunday after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, several hundred people gathered at First Street and Denver Avenue in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was the second consecutive day of protest in the city, as well as in thousands of others across the United States that weekend. But in Tulsa, this day of direct action carried historical significance: The Sunday demonstration coincided with the 99th anniversary of the destruction of the city’s Black Greenwood community by hundreds of white men in 1921. The Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission had commemorated the riot — considered the most devastating single episode of white supremacist violence in American history — with a live online broadcast that featured remarks from civil rights leaders and national figures shortly before people took to the streets holding “We Can’t Breathe” signs above their heads. To extend the length of the planned march and bring awareness to the cause, the organizers decided to deviate from the Tulsa Police Department’s approved route and instead blocked traffic on Interstate 244.

An hour or so into the protest, a Black woman drove up to the hundreds of people blocking the highway and explained that she had an emergency and needed to get through. The protestors allowed her to pass, but they did not extend the same courtesy to the white man directly behind her who was driving a red pickup truck with a 40-foot gooseneck horse trailer. With his wife and two children in the truck, the man proceeded to bump protestors with his vehicle as he inched into the crowd. Protestors responded by punching and kicking his truck. The driver then reportedly placed a handgun on his dashboard. “You get out of my way,” he threatened. The protestors refused to break their human blockade. The driver pressed on his gas pedal and struck those in his path.

The Oklahoma man who ran down demonstrators with his red pickup truck coincided with a wave of at least 72 attacks in the months after George Floyd’s murder by white civilians and police officers alike who accelerated their vehicles into crowds.

Carmyn Taylor stood on the front lines during the Tulsa rally, and was in a wheelchair for weeks with injuries to his legs after the man driving the red pickup truck ran over them. Another protester was paralyzed from the waist down after he fell from a bridge as the truck drove through the crowd. Several others suffered lesser injuries. A group of state troopers stationed nearby let him pass without bothering to make an arrest. When law enforcement authorities interviewed the driver roughly two hours later, around 8 p.m., he said he had been defending himself and his family. As Republican state senator Rob Sandridge would later put it to the press: “The kids cowered in the back seat because they feared for their lives.”

Roughly a year later, the day after Chauvin was convicted of murder and manslaughter and on the eve of the 100-year anniversary of the Tulsa massacre, new anti-riot penalties introduced by Sandridge and other Republican state representatives became law. Signed by Governor Kevin Stitt on April 21, 2021, the bill made “unlawful blocking of a public street” a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine. It imposed new criminal penalties for protesting: exercising one’s First Amendment rights was now punishable by a prison sentence of between two and 20 years. And it protected drivers who killed or injured someone while “fleeing a riot” from criminal or civil penalties, “under a reasonable belief that fleeing was necessary to protect the motor vehicle operator from serious injury or death.” In effect, the legislation created new mechanisms for police to throw protestors behind bars while sanctioning the use of vigilante violence against them. Oklahoma lawmakers clearly had the previous summer’s incident in Tulsa on their minds when drafting it.

For Kevin Matthews, the Democratic state senator who chaired the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, the bill’s broad definition of “riot” left open the possibility that nonviolent protest could be criminalized in the future — a possibility suggested by the city’s own violent history. “In my community, people were bombed from the air, people had cannons shot into our churches, by some accounts 300 people died and businesses burned down,” Matthews said, describing what the white mob had done to the Greenwood community a century prior, an event that until recently was usually described as a “race riot” — even though Black Tulsans took no part in the looting, burning, and killings. The bill was part of a longer local and national history of downplaying white supremacist violence while criminalizing those who might challenge it. 

The Oklahoma bill was one of dozens of anti-riot measures, as they are called, that have been enacted in 20 states since George Floyd was murdered and in the aftermath of the mass protests ignited by his killing. As in Oklahoma, bills in Iowa and Florida introduced criminal sanctions against protestors in general, but particularly those who blocked sidewalks or roadways, while simultaneously shielding people from criminal or civil liability who injured or killed an individual who was “acting in furtherance of a riot” or engaging in “disorderly conduct.” 

These measures were intended to silence dissent and discourage people from protesting. Republican lawmakers in Iowa and Florida also sought to punish any person who “willfully and maliciously defaces, injures, or otherwise damages by any means” a statue, flag, painting, or other “memorial” with a sentence of up to five years in prison; in Arkansas, representatives labeled such damage, a common feature of the 2020 protests, an “act of terrorism.” Under Alabama’s law, some cities can impose fees for a permit granting the right to protest, which is usually free. These fees can include “the actual cost of the use of law enforcement officers,” cleanup, and any other costs incurred by the city during the demonstration. One does not need an active imagination to guess that cities and police departments would use this power to make any planned protest so outrageously expensive that it would simply not happen.

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Florida passed the “strongest anti-rioting, pro-law enforcement piece of legislation in the country,” as Governor Ron DeSantis bragged of the “Combating Public Disorder” law: “There’s nothing even close.” Signed just before the bill in Oklahoma, as a jury was deliberating over Chauvin’s fate, the law’s purpose was to eliminate protest by turning misdemeanor public-disorder offenses into felonies and throwing suspects in jail on protest-related charges until they had the opportunity to appear before a judge, a practice known as pretrial detention. It simultaneously encouraged law enforcement to aggressively police demonstrations by empowering the state to sue municipal governments that failed to “respond appropriately to protect persons and property during a riot or unlawful assembly.” Beyond criminalizing protest itself, Florida lawmakers aimed to prevent local governments from taking steps to “defund the police,” as DeSantis put it, by empowering district attorneys and city or county commissioners to block changes proposed by municipal officials to police departments’ budgets by appealing to the state. 

In all, 80 bills of this kind were introduced by Republicans in 33 states in 2021. Taken together, these measures would not only threaten fundamental civil rights but would also drastically increase incarceration rates and burden state and local governments in the process. According to the ACLU, the penalties associated with the anti-protest measures in Florida alone would cost the state from $2.7 to $7.2 million annually, with an estimated total economic impact of up to $67.1 million. As conservative officials at all levels of government increasingly enact laws to restrict access to the franchise, limit reproductive choice, cage immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean at the border, deny civil rights to LGBTQ+ communities, and other repressive measures, the sweeping anti-riot bills are intended to limit the extent to which people have the legal authority to voice their objections to these policies. 

The policy cycle not only appeared in red states, or among Republican legislators in blue states. In the aftermath of calls from the left to defund the police and invest in alternative crime-prevention strategies, the Biden administration and the Democratic-controlled Congress embraced policies that would effectively refund the police. Policymakers believed that investing in law enforcement offered the best solution to the 30 percent rise in the U.S. murder rate between 2019 and 2020 — the largest single-year increase since the FBI began collecting national crime statistics in 1960. But the surge in homicides in nearly every American city in 2020 could have also been taken as evidence that traditional public safety models had failed. Or it could have been seen as another dire consequence of a global pandemic that destabilized families, caused joblessness, closed schools, shut down community institutions, and left many young people in already under-resourced communities without enough to do. Yet President Biden proposed a prevention strategy for Chicago, New York, and other cities that would use part of the $350 billion earmarked by federal policymakers for direct aid to state and local governments under the American Rescue Plan to hire even more police officers than they employed before the pandemic and pay their overtime. Federal stimulus money that was intended to address the severe impact of COVID-19 on public health and economic outcomes — outcomes that affected Black and Brown people acutely — would now be used to encourage states to expand resources for policing, at the direct expense of mental health and social services. 

To break the policy cycle, it is clear the nation must look for solutions outside of the police. The most promising prevention programs recruit and train community members who have often been previously involved in violent crime to engage in prevention work with younger people. For example, when a shooting occurs in Jackson, Mississippi, violence interrupters from the Strong Arms of JXN program are among the first responders and provide counseling, mentorship, and resources to discourage individuals from further participating in harmful activity and to prevent retaliatory violence. As program director Terun Moore put it, young people at-risk for gun violence “need to be healed,” they don’t need more police. Moore, who served 19 years in prison for killing a man during an armed robbery, would know. “They need some loving, and a lot of restorative work.” This includes leadership training, job opportunities, after-school programs, and other investments that have little if anything to do with law enforcement. 

To break the policy cycle, it is clear the nation must look for solutions outside of the police.

The Biden administration, in fact, wanted it both ways. Even as it prepared to expand urban police forces, the president also urged local governments to use American Rescue Plan funds to support community violence intervention programs like Strong Arms of JXN. In a major address on gun violence in June 2021, Biden recognized the promise of programs utilizing “trusted messengers and community members and leaders” to “intervene before it’s too late” among “people who are most likely to commit gun crimes or become victims of gun crimes.” Biden cited the work of Advance Peace across California and six other states, which, like the Jackson initiative, provides intensive mentoring and social services to mostly young men of color. “It’s saving lives,” Biden said of the program, citing the fact that 91 percent of the participants in Advance Peace Sacramento did not engage in acts of harm.

Still, despite Biden’s stated support for successful community-based programs that are far more cost effective and result in far fewer constitutional and human-rights violations than normal, everyday American policing, the overall emphasis remained and remains on the latter. In this sense, Biden’s approach mirrors that of past Democratic presidents. Lyndon Johnson introduced community-action programs that supported grassroots initiatives to fight the War on Poverty but simultaneously revolutionized American law enforcement via the War on Crime to secure what he called the “forgotten civil right” to safety. Jimmy Carter recognized the socioeconomic factors that contributed to poverty and crime and stressed community participation, but, like Johnson, believed that only federal intervention that asserted greater punitive control in low-income communities of color could manage the symptoms of urban disinvestment. Bill Clinton supported an alarming $10 billion investment in prison construction, with an additional $10.8 billion program to put 100,000 new police officers on the streets as his administration continued to gut the welfare system, early childhood education, and other essential programs. 

Beyond the American Rescue Plan, the Biden administration further doubled down on the failed policies of its predecessors by requesting $388 million in its fiscal year 2022 budget to hire additional police officers through the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), which Biden helped establish as part of the 1994 crime bill he shepherded through the Senate. In the spring of 2021, amid the frenzy of anti-riot bills at the state level, the administration ignored advice from progressive policymakers, criminal justice organizations, and legal authorities and chose to support the renewal of a policy that was enacted under former President Trump that imposes stiff mandatory minimum sentences for individuals with trace amounts of the drug fentanyl in their systems. Meanwhile, the number of people in federal prisons increased after Biden took office, and the president’s legal team determined that those people who were released from prison due to COVID must return when the public health emergency ends. *(Editor’s note: That guidance was later rescinded and a new rule proposed.)

Given these ever-punitive moves, it is little surprise that Biden’s emphasis on criminal justice reform in his early speeches and public remarks did not translate to meaningful changes that millions of protestors — representing a broad coalition the nation has not seen since the civil rights era — demanded in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder.

Excerpted from America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s. Copyright © 2021 by Elizabeth Hinton. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Image: Parker Johnson/Unsplash