By BRYAN ANDERSON, Associated Press/Report for America
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The North Carolina Senate on Aug. 25 approved a bill to raise penalties on those who engage in violent protests, bringing the measure just one step away from clearing the General Assembly.
The proposal from Republican House Speaker Tim Moore comes as a response to rioting and looting that took place in Raleigh last year amid frustration over the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody. Moore and other Republicans say the measure will more forcefully hold criminals accountable.
“What this law is doing is it is keeping our cities safe, our properties safe, while allowing folks to exercise their First Amendment freedoms to protest,” Sen. Danny Britt, a Robeson County Republican, said during floor debate. He spoke before the bill passed the GOP-controlled Senate on a 25-19 vote split along party lines.
But many Democrats and civil rights groups fear the measure could have a chilling effect on free speech and assembly rights by instilling fear among activists and dissuading them from going into the streets to voice their frustrations.
Among many things, the bill allows business owners to sue people who damaged their property for three times the actual damages they incurred, as well as court costs and attorneys’ fees. Protesters who assault emergency responders would be charged with a more serious felony, even if the victim was not physically injured.
Additionally, those charged with rioting or looting could be held in jail for up to 48 hours, conditions similar to those placed on defendants charged with domestic violence.
“It sends a message that will cause people to police themselves and simply stay at home,” said Sen. Natalie Murdock, a Durham County Democrat.
The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina is among those opposed to the bill, as it considers the proposal a “flagrant attempt to vilify the Black Lives Matter movement.” Emancipate North Carolina, the state NAACP and Democracy North Carolina also oppose it.
The bill now returns to the House. If the Republican-controlled chamber backs the latest version of the measure passed by the Senate, it would head to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper for his consideration.
The governor expressed concern with House Bill 805 during a news conference last week. He said he wanted lawmakers to adopt policy recommendations from a task force he commissioned that were outlined last year to address racial inequity in the state’s criminal justice system.
A separate bill given final legislative approval this week and now on his desk includes some of those recommendations — mainly as it relates to police conduct — but leaves out other far-reaching changes.
“We should not have riots, and people who take part in riots should be prosecuted. That needs to be said first,” Cooper said in the news conference. “But, also, we made significant proposals about racial equity in the criminal justice system and some important commonsense changes that need to be made, and that bill doesn’t include any of them.”
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Anderson is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.