By KIM CHANDLER, Associated Press
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — The Alabama House of Representatives approved legislation Tuesday that would create a new definition of a riot and provide tougher penalties for people who participate in one.
Republicans supporting the bill said it is needed to quell violent protests that have caused injuries and property damage. But critics argued that it would have a chilling effect on protests and that a loose definition of rioting could allow an officer to make arrests based on presumptions — and prejudices — about the people involved.
Legislators voted 75-27 for the bill that now moves to the Alabama Senate.
Rep. Allen Treadaway, a retired Birmingham assistant police chief, proposed the bill after a summer protest turned violent in Birmingham in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by police in Minneapolis.
“What I observed then was very disturbing to many of us who watched these protests across the country play out. What I saw was individuals coming into these cities, planting incendiary devices, gasoline, sledgehammers and bricks,” said Treadaway, a Republican from Morris.
The bill, as approved by the House, defines a riot as “the assemblage of five or more persons engaging in conduct which creates an immediate danger of and/or results in damage to property or injury to persons.”
Attending such a gathering after an order from police to disperse would be a misdemeanor punishable by a mandatory 30 days in jail.
Several lawmakers who are Black expressed concern that the bill’s definition of a riot is subjective. They said an officer could make arrests based on his or her presumptions about the people involved.
“The definition doesn’t require you to do anything. The perception of the person is in the eye of the beholder,” said Rep. Chris England, a Democrat from Tuscaloosa.
Rep. A.J. McCampbell, a Democratic lawmaker from Gallion, said a police officer could look at a group of young Black men and “subjectively say they are looking like they are going to cause a riot.”
McCampbell, a former police officer, referenced instances both past and recent where Black people were treated differently by police. He wore a shirt with a photo of civil rights protesters being attacked by police in 1965 in Selma. He described a recent video from New Jersey that showed a Black teen being handcuffed after a mall fight with a white youth, who was directed to sit down on a couch.
“And you tell me I don’t have reason to be worried about a riot bill. Laws, if they are applied justly and equitably, are the best thing that we can have. But when you are born Black, that equality fails to be something that you can expect,” McCampbell said.