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Riot bill advances after divided committee vote

By KIM CHANDLER, Associated Press

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — A divided committee on Wednesday advanced legislation that would mandate jail time for participating in a riot which the bill defines as a gathering that creates a danger of injuries and property damage

Republicans supporting the bill said it is needed to combat violent protests that cause injuries and property damage. But critics said the legislation’s definition of riot is vague and would allow an officer to make arrests based on presumptions about the people in the demonstration. The House Judiciary approved the bill on a 10-4 vote. It now moves to the Alabama House of Representatives.

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. The protest turned destructive and led to multiple businesses being burned and damaged.

“Buildings were burning. Stores were being looted. Pawn shops were being looted for weapons,” Treadaway, a Republican from Morris, told the committee. The former assistant police chief said he believed the local chapter of Black Lives Matter had planned a peaceful protest, but that it was “hijacked” by organized people who wanted violence.

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 bill, after it was amended by the committee, defines 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. The bill also would require a mandatory 24-hour hold without bail for anyone who is arrested for rioting.

Rep. Merika Coleman, said her 21-year-old son, a college student and football player, is “one of the sweetest people you will ever meet.” But she said some people make assumptions when they see a group of young Black men.

“They make an assumption about who they are, and they make an assumption about what they are about to do,” said Coleman, a Democrat from Pleasant Grove.

“How do we make sure bad actors don’t use this provision in the law disproportionately against communities of color who they make an assumption are thugs, criminals because of their perception of what a thug and criminal looks like.”

Rep. Chris England said the proposal allows a law enforcement officer to make arrests based on presumptions.
“It appears to me the definition of riot and legitimate political discourse appears to be who is participating,”

England said, adding that some people get the benefit of the doubt while others carry a presumption.

“People who look like me carry presumption. People who don’t look like me carry the benefit of the doubt,” England, a Democrat from Tuscaloosa, said.

Treadaway responded that he didn’t think they could reach a “perfect definition” but “you have to put trust in the law enforcement officers and in the court system.”

“It was pretty clear to law enforcement what happened in Birmingham was rioters, looters and criminals,” Treadaway said.

A federal judge blocked a similar Florida statute from taking effect. The American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama has said it would seek a similar injunction in Alabama if the bill were to become law.

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