Arizona lawmakers are using Trump-fueled rumors of “paid protesters” to push a new bill that would make rioting prosecutable under the same charges the state currently uses against members of organized crime rings.
Senate Bill 1142, which passed Arizona’s Senate on Wednesday and has been sent to the state’s House, would expand the definition of rioting, and make the crime prosecutable under racketeering laws. If booked on rioting charges—like some journalists were when they covered riots at Trump’s inauguration in D.C.—an activist could have their assets seized while officials investigated whether he or she had been paid.
If the bill passes the Arizona’s Republican-majority House, the legislation could have a chilling effect on freedom of speech, activists say.
“The reason this bill has been floated by members of our legislature is that they are under the impression that there is some kind of grand conspiracy that people are being paid to go out and cause trouble through protests,” Steve Kilar, a spokesperson for the ACLU of Arizona told The Daily Beast. “There is this belief that people wouldn’t be out protesting unless someone did provide an incentive to do it. So the Arizona legislature in their great wisdom has decided there needs to be a way to go after these fictitious funders of protests.”
The state’s racketeering laws currently target organized crime syndicates and cover conspiracy, money laundering, extortion, or weapons trafficking. They also allow prosecutors special powers, including the ability to seize a suspect’s assets for the purposes of an investigation. If passed, the new bill would allow officials to seize rioters’ property.
“By adding riots into the RICO statute, that opens the possibility for prosecutors to go after assets in a way that isn’t typical for all criminal statutes in Arizona,” Kilar said.
But State Senator Sonny Borelli, the bill’s sponsor, called the legislation “straightforward.”
“Rioting [is] not protected under the First Amendment,” Borelli told The Daily Beast. “Everybody’s twisting that around.” His law expands the definition of rioting to include protests that disturb the peace or damage property.
Borelli believes some recent protesters have been paid. “Not all,” he said. “I’m sure there are some.”
During the bill’s introduction, its sponsors cited protests at President Donald Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration, and at Berkeley where alt-right personality Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak earlier this month. Republican figures have accused protesters of being paid to riot at both events. While these claims have been repeatedly debunked, one Arizona activist group found itself at the center of a political firestorm when The Daily Caller accused it of funding a group that rioted at Yiannopoulos’s Berkeley speech.
The Alliance for Global Justice is a Tucson, Arizona-based advocacy group focusing on foreign policy issues, particularly U.S. relations with Latin America. The AFGJ operates on a shoestring budget, as its only full-time employee, James Jordan, told The Daily Beast. The group, a nonprofit, shares some funds and legal services including tax processing and payroll services with approximately 90 smaller organizations, including Refuse Fascism, a group that claims to have been behind the protests at Berkeley. This connection led right-wing sites like Breitbart and The Daily Caller to accuse the AFGJ of funnelling money to Berkeley rioters.
“We get by with a budget that barely meets our own plans and projections,” Jordan said. “The idea that we would have funds set aside to pay protesters to come to events is just ridiculous.”
But should a protest turn violent in Arizona, groups like Jordan’s could come under scrutiny on racketeering charges. Borelli described the bill as a means of targeting the people he believes are bankrolling protests.
“If a rioter confesses and says ‘yeah, my employer paid me to start a riot,’ shouldn’t we be able to go after him?” Borelli said of the alleged riot-funders.
Critics of the bill say its wording could also be used against people who simply happened to have been at a protest that turned violent. The bill states that an overt act is not required to prove a person’s involvement in a riot, making it easier to charge nonviolent people in the vicinity. Since Trump’s inauguration, a number of people have been arrested nationally on riot charges, despite claiming to have been bystanders or nonviolent protesters. At least six journalists covering protests at Trump’s inauguration were arrested on felony riot charges under local D.C. law. The charges were later dropped.
Under the expanded definition, Arizona’s rioting charges could be applied to groups that violently damaged property or disturbed the peace. Ironically, the bill’s sponsor, Borelli, has a disorderly conduct charge on his own record, after police accused him of repeatedly hitting his wife in 2001. Borelli denied hitting her, but pleaded guilty to a disturbing the peace, a charge Borelli’s opponent Ron Gould cited during a contentious 2016 election.
In recording obtained by the Arizona Capitol Times in August 2016, Borelli laid into Gould’s voters in a profane rant.
“If these ignorant, c--ksucking idiots want to vote for that f--king phony, lying piece of s--t, they can get what they deserve,” Borelli said of Gould voters in the recording. “Another f--king senator, a senator that did absolutely nothing for this district except piss everybody off in Phoenix, to include the f--king governor. And now how is he going to act when he goes back to Phoenix with a f--king governor that he’s already called a f--king RINO and a liberal? Do you think we’re going to get any support? F--k! This guy has been f--king badmouthing [Gov. Doug] Ducey since he got elected.”
Meanwhile, if Borelli’s bill passes, activists worry about protesters being arrested on trumped-up charges.
“One thing that worries me about this law being passed is that there is a history of law enforcement going into activist groups and pushing them to do things that are illegal, just so they can set them up to be arrested, or going into protests and provoking them,” said Jordan, a longtime activist in Arizona.
“I’m thinking of numerous instances when agents or provocateurs will go and prod naive people into planning or committing illegal acts. I just think you add that with laws like this and it’s an ominous, ominous precedent for what could be coming down against dissent and against freedom of speech.
“The idea that we’re paying people to protest is a clueless allegation based in nothing but fantasy,” Jordan added.
“When people see hundreds of thousands people marching—millions of people in the marches for women’s rights—what you are seeing are people who are genuinely concerned and moved to go out to exercise their right to free speech and their right to assemble and their right to protest.”