Protest bill approved, even with objections

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Protesters gather in front of Phoenix City Hall, Saturday, May 30, 2020, in Phoenix while protesting the death of George Floyd, a handcuffed black man who died in Minneapolis police custody on May 25. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Alabama lawmakers approved a bill — filed after the tumultuous summer protests — to stiffen penalties for participating in riots and traffic-blocking demonstrations. The approval came over the objections of Black lawmakers who said they feared it would be used to jail and intimidate demonstrators.

The GOP-dominated House of Representatives voted 74-25 for the bill, sending it to the Alabama Senate. The bill’s sponsor said the legislation is needed to crack down on violent behavior, but advocacy groups and Black lawmakers have raised concerns about the vagueness of what could be considered a riot. The approval followed an emotional debate in which speakers recalled America’s storied history of social movements as well as the recent police shootings that ignited widespread protests.

Republican Rep. Allen Treadaway, a retired Birmingham assistant police chief, proposed the bill after a summer protest in Birmingham in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. That particular protest turned destructive and led to multiple businesses being burned and damaged.

“As we watched across the country this past summer, a lot of the cities burned, and officers were assaulted and even protestors injured and hurt. That came to Birmingham, came to several of our cities in Alabama,” Treadaway said.

The bill would change the definition of a riot and define new crimes of assault against a first responder, aggravated riot, and traffic interference. It would allow police to hold arrested individuals in jail for 24 hours without bond.

Treadaway said the bill is aimed only at people “hell-bent” on doing damage. Democrats expressed concern about that the stiff penalties are aimed at silencing dissent.

“People use their First Amendment right to talk about how they were wronged, how other groups of people were wronged, and to change those wrongs into rights. That’s who we are as a country,” said Rep. Merika Coleman, D-Pleasant Grove.

Alabama law currently defines participating in a riot as wrongfully engaging “in tumultuous and violent conduct and thereby intentionally or recklessly causes or creates a grave risk of public terror or alarm.” The approved bill defines a riot as “the assemblage of five or more persons resulting in conduct creating an immediate danger of damage to property or injury to persons.”

Republicans voted to cut off a Democratic filibuster on the bill and force a vote.

A Democratic bill that would create a database of police shootings has stalled in the Alabama Legislature. Another to require the keeping of racial data on traffic stops has never reached final passage.

Floyd’s death in Minneapolis set off a wave of sometimes-violent protests across the country. The Black man was pronounced dead after a police officer pressed his knee against his neck for about nine minutes. The incident was widely seen after being captured by bystander video.

“We watched someone get murdered on TV, and we can’t get even get an audience for a bill where we all acknowledge there is a problem with policing,” said Rep. Chris England, a former prosecutor who heads the Alabama Democratic Party.

Republished with the permission of the Associated Press.