MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama lawmakers on Tuesday delayed action on an anti-riot bill that would stiffen penalties for participating in “tumultuous” protests that pose a threat, a proposal minority lawmakers and opponents said would be used to silence Black demonstrators.
The House Judiciary Committee sent the bill to a subcommittee after Black lawmakers raised concerns about the bill’s vague definition of what could be considered a riot. They recalled Alabama’s history of using police dogs, fire hoses and arrests to break up civil rights protests.
Rep. Merika Coleman, D-Pleasant Grove, told her fellow committee members that no one supports looting or violence, but said this proposal could be used as “a tool to keep people from peacefully protesting.”
“All of us in here who come from communities of color, especially in Alabama — Black folks — know this bill will be used primarily against our folks. We already know it,” Coleman said.
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 — turned destructive and led to multiple businesses being damaged.
“Folks are coming into the cities hellbent on destruction,” Treadaway said. “We are taking a strong position toward the lawbreakers. Those that are looting … trying to burn the city down in this case.”
The bill would hand down minimum 30-day jail sentences for participating in what the bill defines as a riot. The crime of aggravated riot, when substantial injury or damage is done, would be a felony
The bill defines a riot as “a tumultuous disturbance in a public place or penal institution by five or more persons assembled together and acting with a common intent which creates a grave danger of substantial damage to public, private, or other property or serious bodily injury to one or more persons, or substantially obstructs a law enforcement or other government function.”
Rep. Chris England, a former prosecutor who heads the Alabama Democratic Party, said the new definition of riot is vague and could lead to people being arrested for merely saying something an officer finds objectionable.
“This definition of riot becomes I don’t like what you just said so I’m taking you and all your friends into custody— peaceful or not. You don’t have to do anything overt to violate this definition. It’s all about the (officer’s) perspective into what they think you are saying or what your intent is,” England said.
England told Treadaway said there also a need for a “critical conversation about the lack of relationship between law enforcement and communities of color.”
“Nobody wants to see looting, a window blown out and police officers attacked and hurt. Nobody wants to see that. And also, everybody understands how difficult it is to be a law enforcement officer. But also, I want to tell you how difficult it is at times to be a Black American in this country,” England said.
Opponents of the bill said it harkened back to the days of Alabama police officers trying to silence civil rights protesters.
“I’m a child of the 60s. This bill took me back to Bull Connor. …I could see the dogs that he sicced on my brother who got arrested three times. I could see those hoses,” said Rep. Mary Moore, who participated as a teen in the 1963 children’s march in Birmingham.
Connor was the city’s public safety commissioner who directed officers to use force to halt the demonstration. Police dogs and fire hoses were turned on youths taking part in the protest.
This story has been corrected to show that Bull Connor was Birmingham’s safety commissioner, not police chief.