In the wake of the killing of six officers in Dallas last Thursday, legislators across the country are considering bills to offer hate crime protections to cops. Two so-called “Blue Lives Matter” bills have already been announced since the mass shooting, modeled after the law passed in Louisiana this year. But instead of making police safer, the bills may have the consequence of criminalizing protesters and groups that are already targeted by law enforcement.
In May, Louisiana became the first state to expand its hate crime protections to include police and emergency personnel. To the disappointment of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and advocates of the First Amendment, the first-of-its-kind Blue Lives Matter law enhanced the penalties for people who attack or threaten cops in the state, effectively lumping a profession into the same category as fixed or perceived traits like race, gender, and religion. When it goes into effect in three weeks, it could be put to the test right away in Baton Rouge, where protesters have taken to the streets in response to the shooting of Alton Sterling.
On Sunday, people gathered in the streets were met with police in military gear and tanks. At least one officer was filmed pointing a gun at protesters. Officers also made at least 100 arrests during the mass demonstrations, locking up peaceful protesters including activist DeRay Mckesson.
It remains to be seen if the law will have its desired effect of making police safer, but Blue Lives Matter bills that treat police like vilified minorities may gain traction in other parts of the country, following the deadly attack on officers in Dallas. And that means the people demanding an end to police violence in places like Baton Rouge could have an ever bigger target on their backs for exercising their First Amendment rights.
On Friday, less than a day after the Dallas shooting, Rep. David Steffen (R-WI) announced a bill to “protect those who protect us” in Wisconsin. Modeled after the law in Louisiana, Steffen’s Blue Lives Matter initiative would impose “serious penalties” on anyone who targets cops, EMTs, and firefighters in the state. “This legislation sends a clear message that the despicable attacks we’ve seen against officers throughout the country will not be tolerated in Wisconsin,” he said in a statement. Hours after Steffen’s announcement, two Florida representatives said they would pass a Blue Lives Matter laws in their home state as well.
Coincidentally, one day before the shooting, Rep. Kevin Bratcher (R-KY) introduced a similar bill in Kentucky, where attacking an officer is currently considered a capital offense. “‘Blue lives matter’ is what the title originally was for this bill and it doesn’t demean any other ‘lives matter,’” Bratcher said, adding, “I’m one of those that believe ‘all lives matter.’”
A Chicago alderman proposed a like-minded ordinance in June.
More Blue Lives Matter bills could be coming in response to the Dallas shooting. And civil rightsorganizations believe the legislation will do more to punish marginalized communities than keep police safer.
In Louisiana, where tension between police and protesters has reached fever pitch, the definition of a hate crime attack extends far beyond physically assaulting a cop. People who damage squad cars or gather on police property can be charged with hate crimes as well. During large, chaotic demonstrations like the one in Baton Rouge, police can accuse protesters of assault or threatening behavior for simply being present.