MONTGOMERY — A bill that would increase penalties for those who participate in “riots” was slowed down in a House committee today after some lawmakers expressed concerns that the bill is limiting First Amendment rights to protest.
State Rep. Allen Treadaway, a retired Birmingham assistant police chief, is sponsoring House Bill 455, which he developed in reaction to the protests that happened in Birmingham and across the nation in response to the killing of George Floyd.
“There is an effort going on in this country to come in and highjack whatever cause it is, hell bent on destruction. Police are there to protect our citizens, to protect our officers, to protect our property and it’s getting more and more difficult and certainly more and more dangerous, and it’s having a chilling effect on the law enforcement profession,” Treadaway said during the committee meeting.
The bill was referred to a subcommittee to further discuss changes to the bill. Sometimes that is a tactic to kill legislation, but House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Hill, R-Moody, said that he plans on taking the bill up again next week.
During a public hearing on the bill, several residents spoke against it, saying it would unfairly hurt all protestors in Alabama but would be especially harmful to Black protestors speaking out against police brutality in communities of color.
Satura Dudley spoke against the bill on Tuesday, saying she was arrested in Birmingham when protesting last summer and said this bill would not protect people from violent actors during protests.
“This bill will target Black protestors and leaders in an attempt to justify making us disposable, just like the Hoover police department did to me,” Dedley said. “You are not making rioting, you are not making acts of violence illegal, you are making protesting illegal.”
David Gespass, a Birmingham based lawyer, also spoke in opposition to the bill, saying it is an infringement on first amendment rights.
“This bill seeks to strengthen the hands of the police and further punish protests,” Gespass said.
House Bill 455 would:
- require a person arrested for participating in a riot, blocking traffic during a protest or assaulting a first responder to wait 48 hours in jail before being eligible for bail.
- create the new felony crime of aggravated riot for knowingly participating in a riot that causes property damage or harm to a person. It would be a class C felony, punishable by a minimum of six months in jail.
- make it a felony to injure a first responder during a riot or to spit or throw bodily fluids on a first responder.
- create a felony for repeat offenses of obstructing traffic with sit-ins and marches.
- prohibit local governments that defund their police departments from receiving state money.
The bill has 50 co-sponsors, all Republican representatives.
Rep. Mike Ball, R-Madison, is a co-sponsor on the bill but says he is still making up his mind based on the concerns he heard on Tuesday.
“You want law enforcement to be able to take action against those who are inciting violence and that cause violence, but at the same token, you don’t want police to overreact,” Ball said. “It’s a tightrope you have to walk.”
Rep. Phillip Pettus, R-Killen, also co-sponsors the bill and said he looks forward to the changes made to the bill in the subcommittee.
“We need to make sure that the public and everybody is put in a safe place and we don’t want the police or anybody else hurt,” Pettus said. “I think it’s a good bill, hopefully in subcommittee they’ll put a few adjustments on it and make it a better bill.”
State Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, had many concerns about the bill, including how the bill defines a “riot,” which he says could end up hurting peaceful protestors.
“This legislation in the way it’s written almost weaponizes law enforcement to suppress first amendment protected free speech and at times puts law enforcement in the position of having to determine what constitutes as constitutionally protected free speech,” England said.
England agrees that rioting and destruction of property should not be allowed but said the Legislature should also be tackling the issues that make some distrust law enforcement.
“When we see legislation like this it reminds people the reason why they were protesting in the first place,” England said.
Rep. Merika Coleman, D-Birmingham, opposes the bill and recalled that civil rights activists in the 1960’s had to combat efforts to hinder protesting in the state as well.
“I never would have thought that I would be fighting against the same type of policies that my mother worked against in the streets of Birmingham,” Coleman said.
Rep. Barbara Boyd, D-Anniston, said she is concerned about the bill because it is too subjective. She said it could be applied to groups of Black protestors but not white protestors who do the same activities.
“It needs more safeguards to protect those who are marching peacefully,” Boyd said.
Rep. Randy Wood, R-Anniston, co-sponsors the bill and says he doesn’t believe the bill infringes on first-amendment rights to protest.
“There is no such thing as first amendment rights when you’re tearing up property, in my opinion,” Wood said. “If you’re tearing up property, it’s got to be stopped.”
Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, is a co-sponsor on the bill and listened to the debate. She said she was supportive of England’s efforts to put better definitions in the bill.
“I would hope that Rep. Treadaway would continue to work with Rep. England to make the bill better,” Collins said.