Local Politics: Obstruction of justice bill clear in what it protects

Legislation passed by Republicans, which increases penalties for disobeying or distracting police, would have given Minneapolis officers cover to arrest those who witnessed the murder of George Floyd

Craig Calcaterra
Sat. May 30, 2020; Columbus; OH, USA; Peaceful demonstrators stand in the middle of Broad Street as Columbus Division of Police officers attempt to move them from the area during protests following the death of Minneapolis man George Floyd on Saturday, May 30, 2020 in Columbus, Ohio. Floyd, 46-year-old black man, died while in police custody earlier this week in Minneapolis after allegedly passing a counterfeit $20 bill at a convenience store. Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who was one of four police officers involved in Floyd's arrest, has himself been arrested and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter. Video footage showed Chauvin kneeling down on Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes during the arrest. [Joshua A. Bickel/Dispatch]

The Ohio House passed legislation on Friday, in the form of House Bill 22, that would expand the definition of "obstruction of justice" to include a failure to follow a lawful order or diverting a law enforcement officer’s attention. The would-be law would also outlaw any act that "inhibits or restricts the law enforcement officer's control of a subject or detainee" or that distracts a police officer. Such acts would constitute a second-degree misdemeanor, but could rise to a fifth-degree felony if the person's actions risked physical harm to the police officer.

House Republicans, who passed the legislation on a party line vote (the bill is now headed to the Senate for consideration), have provided all manner of justification for its existence, all couched in terms of "protecting" police officers and "protecting" the public in light of the protests that followed the police killings of George Floyd and other Black Americans last summer. It seems, however, that the law is almost tailor-made not to deal with that which happened when people filled the streets after the murder of George Floyd, but to prevent Floyd's murder from ever being made known to the public.

If a law like House Bill 22 was in place last year in Minnesota, it could have, and likely would have, been used to  arrest and prosecute Darnella Frazier, the teenager who recorded cell phone video of Floyd’s death. Or to arrest those who stood by and implored police to let Floyd breathe. Indeed, as the video makes clear, Derek Chauvin looked toward witnesses and away from Floyd, making it possible for him or his fellow officers to argue that their attention was "diverted" away from Floyd, to use the bill's verbiage.

This isn't theoretical. It was Chauvin's primary defense at his trial. This is from the opening statement of Eric Nelson, Chauvin's defense attorney, at his trial last March:

"As the crowd grew in size, seemingly so too did their anger. Remember, there is more to the scene than just what the officers see in front of them. There are people behind them and across the street. There are cars stopping, people yelling. There are — there is a growing crowd and what officers perceived to be a threat. They are called names. They’re screaming at them. Causing the officers to divert their attention from the care of Mr. Floyd to the threat that was growing in front of them."

Under a law like House Bill 22, police officers could've fanned out and arrested or otherwise dispersed witnesses, including Frazier, because their attention had been "diverted." In the absence of this witness testimony or the video of Floyd's death, the lie the Minneapolis police initially told — that Floyd's death was the result of a "medical incident during police interaction" — likely would've held up. In that case, Chauvin would've literally gotten away with murder and the young woman who recorded the killing would've been put on trial in his stead.

It's no accident that the language Republicans have chosen to employ in their new bill supports a line of defense employed by someone like Chauvin. Indeed, it's all part of the larger culture war mentality that stands as, essentially, the entire platform of the modern Republican Party.

Since taking office, President Biden has attempted to follow the lead of many Democrats and others on the left in placing racial and social equity at the center of most of what he does. These have been modest efforts for the most part, such as proposing a small-business program that prioritized applications from women and people of color and an Agriculture Department program aimed at forgiving the debts of Black farmers and other minority farmers that had been intended to redress years of discrimination. The small business program has had to change its rules, however, after a lawsuit was filed on behalf of aggrieved white restaurant owners. And this week a judge stopped the Agriculture Department program due to a challenge from white farmers. 

Republicans, bereft of policy proposals of their own, have demagogued programs and lawsuits like these — and have invented a controversy regarding Critical Race Theory from whole cloth — in an attempt to make their fight against any and all efforts at promoting racial equity into the primary issue of the day. They will no doubt use them on the campaign trail during the 2022 elections.

House Bill 22 falls into the same category. It's not about "protecting" police or the administration of justice. It's about revisiting the summer of 2020 and giving both police and Republican voters a chance to imagine life if Floyd's death had gone unnoticed and none of the righteous anger and considerable upheaval that followed in its wake had ever happened in the first place.