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Bill raising riot penalties in North Carolina clears House

RALEIGH, N.C. — A bill increasing punishments for violent protests following the 2020 demonstrations over George Floyd's murder passed the North Carolina House on Wednesday despite harsh criticism from social justice advocates. Some bipartisan support signals a potential override of any veto by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who issued one that blocked similar legislation two years ago.

Like the 2021 proposal, the new bill was spearheaded by Republican House Speaker Tim Moore, who has cited rioting and looting that he saw firsthand in downtown Raleigh in June 2020 amid otherwise peaceful protests as an impetus for the legislation.

The bill, which has one House Democrat as a chief sponsor, cleared the chamber 75-43 with six Democrats and all Republicans present voting yes. It now heads to the Senate.

Republican gains in both the House and Senate from elections this past November now give the GOP a veto-proof majority in the Senate and put it within one seat of a similar majority in the House.

State law already makes it a misdemeanor to willfully participate in a riot or incite one. It becomes a felony when serious injury or property damage incurred exceeds $1,500, with active prison time possible on a first offense. The punishments for these crimes would rise under the legislation, including a new felony crime when participating in a riot leads to a death.

The measure also allows property owners whose businesses are damaged in a riot to seek compensation against a perpetrator equal to three times the monetary damage. And new bond and pretrial release rules for rioting and looting defendants would have a judge set those conditions within 24 hours. Bill supporters have complained defendants can otherwise be released immediately by a magistrate.

Moore and other supporters insist they wholeheartedly support free speech and the First Amendment right to assemble to express grievances. But the speaker said he didn't want that right to be misinterpreted and twisted to condone destruction.

“Our current laws ... were not sufficiently strong enough to guarantee that those who engaged in the most violent and destructive behavior would ever see the inside of a jail cell,” Moore said during the House floor debate of the bill, which moved through two committees earlier in the day. “Today is an opportunity to say we’re going to stand up and support safety and security.”

Several advocacy groups, whose members participate frequently in social justice demonstrations, blasted the proposal as an attack on the Black Lives Matter movement and an attempt to discourage minority and low-income residents from speaking out.

“This overly broad, still problematic bill is not about protecting peace,” Melissa Price Kromm, director of the North Carolina Voters for Clean Elections, told a judiciary committee earlier Wednesday. “It’s about silencing dissent.”

Tyler Daye of Common Cause North Carolina said the legislation, if enacted, could be used to punish bystanders or speakers whose words inadvertently incite violence.

“If a riot takes place, some innocent, peaceful protesters may be interwoven with intruders who have come to hijack their message,” Daye said.

Nine states have passed similar protest laws since June 2020, according to the International Center for Not-For-Profit Law. North Carolina is one of 10 states currently considering new penalties.

In his veto message of the 2021 bill, Cooper said legislation was “unnecessary and is intended to intimidate and deter people from exercising their constitutional rights to peacefully protest.”

Many House Democratic members made similar arguments Wednesday, even after floor amendments were approved to raise the property damage threshold to $2,500 and reduce the potential jail time before a judge determines bond from 48 hours contained in the original bill.

Rep. Amos Quick, a Guilford County Democrat, said the way to prevent violence is a quick response by authorities to wrongdoing. He said rapid action against police officers in Memphis, Tennessee, in the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols last month discouraged rioting nationwide.

“I am against riots. I am against property damage, but I am for justice,” Quick said. “This bill does not advance justice by increasing penalties.”

Democratic Rep. Abe Jones, a former Wake County judge who supported the bill, said there's no excuse for someone who uses a peaceful demonstration to wreak havoc.

“I despise somebody who would go out and tear up another person’s property that they didn’t pay for and take advantage of a situation — sometimes a very good protest — and then flip it,” said Jones, who, like Quick, is Black.

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