In the early afternoon of Jan. 4, State Sen. Brenda Stanley watched an Oklahoma County Jail Trust meeting in downtown Oklahoma City with dismay.
The meeting happened like several had in the past six months: Activists and organizers filled the room to demand financial accountability and action to fix deadly conditions at the county jail, where inmates die at a rate double the national average.
Yelling and cursing ensued. A white man called someone a racial slur, nearly causing a fight to break out.
“They got loud. They were intrusive,” said Stanley, R-Midwest City. “I just think the way we see some public meetings now has gotten out of hand.”
As an extension of protests against police brutality and systemic racism last year, county demonstrators interrupted jail trust meetings with chants and even staged a funeral.
The disruptions, which often halted county business, worked. Federal coronavirus relief funding was shifted around, and a citizen oversight committee was put in place.
“I don’t regret at all disrupting meetings,” said Adriana Laws, a local activist who led county protests and now sits on the oversight committee. “I cannot be convinced that there would have been a better way to go about solving these problems. They refused to meet with us. They refused to talk to us about the issues we care about.”
That style of interference was unacceptable to many, though. In response, Stanley wrote Senate Bill 403 to allow law enforcement to remove disruptive individuals from local meetings and charge them with a misdemeanor.
Stanley’s bill is one of at least 35 pieces of legislation filed by lawmakers in response to protests last year. Legislators hope to bolster protections and support for law enforcement and increase criminal penalties for those involved in riots or unlawful gatherings.
Over half of those bills have already failed to make it through this year’s legislative process, but the remaining bills have broad support in the Republican-controlled Legislature.
Lawmakers are poised to make it a felony to assault, delay or obstruct a law enforcement officer. And drivers who hit protesters while fleeing from roadways that are filled with people will likely receive legal immunity.
One lawmaker hopes to include riots in the state’s racketeering definition, which is used to prosecute organized crime.
Others are aiming to require individuals convicted of participating in a riot to pay restitution for any property damage.
Sen. Casey Murdock, R-Felt, told a committee in early February that he wrote a bill to classify attacks on police as hate crimes after he watched law enforcement officers be “targeted” while on the job last summer.
“I wouldn’t call it a political statement. I’d call it us standing up and backing our police officers,” Murdock said.
Lawmakers say they are trying to address instances of violence or extreme disruption, not infringe on anyone’s right to protest. But activists believe lawmakers missed a chance to address accountability and inequality, instead choosing to criminalize those who already feel targeted by police.
“They completely ignored that message, and it shows they are tone deaf and detached from the reality of what us everyday Oklahomans go through,” Laws said.
“We know that (the Legislature is) not holding people accountable. Our county government and district attorneys are rarely holding people accountable. So at this point, it’s on the public. It’s our loss of life.”
Spurred on by the killing of George Floyd while he was being arrested by Minneapolis police last May, protests demanding an end to police brutality and an examination of law enforcement practices erupted across Oklahoma.
In Oklahoma City, crowds were met with tear gas and rubber bullets. Dozens of protesters were arrested for obstructing police officers and disorderly conduct. A handful faced terrorism charges. Oklahoma City police said 40 damage reports were called in at $300,000.
In Tulsa, thousands marched through downtown on and around the date of the 99th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre. When protesters took over an interstate, a man drove a truck with a horse trailer through the crowd, injuring several and paralyzing one who was forced off a bridge.
The vast majority of protests ended without any altercations between protesters and police. And organizers say when altercations did happen, it was because law enforcement arrived on the scene and escalated tensions.
Across the country, state legislatures quickly responded to the outrage, pushing forward broad police-reform legislation to up accountability practices, ban the use of chokeholds and increase de-escalation training.
And the U.S. House passed the ‘George Floyd Justice in Policing Act’ on March 3, which President Joe Biden called a “landmark police reform bill.”
With some exceptions — like Senate Bill 811 that would require at least 25 percent of officers in a police department to have crisis intervention training — Oklahoma took a different approach.
Many state lawmakers said they supported the right to protest but emphasized violence would not be tolerated.
Rather than a focus on reforming police protocols and training during the 2021 legislative session, Republican lawmakers are doubling down on violent or destructive protests with new penalties and harsher punishments, a trend throughout the South and Midwest.
“I think many Oklahomans were shocked and frightened by this kind of violence and destruction,” said Sen. Darrell Weaver, R-Moore, after the Senate passed his bill increasing penalties for destroying property and refusing orders to disperse.
“Free speech and the right of peaceful assembly are guaranteed by the Constitution, but that doesn’t extend to breaking windows, burning businesses or destroying public property.”
Mark Nelson, president of the Oklahoma Fraternal Order of Police, said officers appreciate the support from lawmakers.
“They have to have the ultimate protection to do the job,” he said. “There is a lot of scrutiny there, and we’re okay with that. But with scrutiny has to come protection.”
Dozens of states introduced measures to create new penalties for protesters, but the high number of bills filed in Oklahoma on the topic sets the state apart, activists say.
“I think we are seeing trends like this in legislatures across the country where folks feel they have to make a political statement about standing with law enforcement increasingly in ways that criminalize anyone who would hold law enforcement accountable,” said Nicole McAfee, director of policy and advocacy for the ACLU of Oklahoma.
She pointed to current bills that would make it illegal to post identifiable information of a law enforcement officer online, a process known as ‘doxing.’
The bills say information like social security numbers can’t be posted, but they also say photos, videos and places of work couldn’t be posted either.
“The conversation is sort of pushed in this really personal way about them being vulnerable at home, but it could also be used to criminalize people who are sharing a picture of an officer after a police shooting or otherwise engaging in accountability work for actions taken by officers while they were on duty,” McAfee said.
In December, Oklahoma City police officers shot and killed Bennie Edwards, a local man experiencing mental health issues and homelessness. Videos taken by bystanders showing Edwards running away from police when he was shot were circulated weeks before any official footage was released.
The officer responsible for fatally shooting Edwards was recently charged with manslaughter.
And Laws, the Oklahoma County activist, questioned the bill giving immunity to drivers who hit protesters on a roadway, saying obstruction of a roadway in Oklahoma law is “only punishable by a misdemeanor. Not by death.”
Rep. Monroe Nichols, D-Tulsa, introduced three police reform measures this year, but none were heard in committee.
Two of the bills would have given authority to the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office to investigate uses of deadly force, as well as keep a database on disciplinary actions taken against officers for misconduct.
Other Democractic lawmakers also filed bills to redefine when deadly force could be used, ban chokeholds and update hiring requirements for police departments across the state. These bills, like most of their kind over the last several years, didn’t get committee hearings, either.
Oklahoma’s current use of deadly force standards are comparable to most other states, which allow deadly force when officers are defending themselves or preventing the escape of someone who would likely cause “great bodily harm unless arrested without delay.”
But compared to the 21 other states with protocols for investigations of deadly force, Oklahoma’s system, implemented in 2019, is much less robust and requires no input from the public, according to a review of data from the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“It would bring down some of the emotions if we had processes,” Nichols said. “Lack of process is why you see the angst in protests. People don’t believe that justice is going to be served. People don’t know what is going on. People don’t have any idea the status of something or the reasons why.”
Nichols said he views many of the Republican-backed bills as unnecessary.
Oklahoma already broadly defines a riot as any force or threat of force by three or more people without legal authority. And district attorneys already use discretion, often controversially, to decide when and how to prosecute those arrested during protests.
The Tulsa County district attorney chose not to charge the man who drove through a crowd of protesters blocking a highway. And the Oklahoma County district attorney used existing laws to bring terrorism charges against individuals who protested.
“We’re having a bunch of political bills that are going to get headlines, but we are missing the really critical policy changes that will frankly save lives,” Nichols said. “The feeling in the community is that this legislative body is racist. I think that is unfortunate, but it is a true perception about Oklahoma.”
Gov. Kevin Stitt’s office said he wouldn’t comment on whether he’d eventually sign the pending legislation, but Stitt has previously said the state will “support local law enforcement who are respectfully working to stop criminal activity.”