An N.C. House committee voted down a bill titled “Economic Terrorism” that would have increased penalties on law-breaking protesters in the wake of unrest in Charlotte last year.
Rep. John Torbett, a Gaston County Republican, proposed House Bill 249 to target protesters who block traffic, damage property or disrupt businesses while involved in a protest. But Democrats argued that the bill could infringe on First Amendment rights, and two Republicans on the House Judiciary II Committee suggested that existing laws should already address protests that turn violent.
The bill failed in a 6-5 vote as Republican Reps. Chuck McGrady and Dana Bumgardner joined Democrats in opposition. The vote means the legislation is likely dead for this legislative session.
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“This bill that you have here is a piece of abomination that should be confined to the streets of hell forever,” said Rep. Mickey Michaux, a Durham Democrat. Michaux spoke about his involvement in the civil rights movement and suggested that the bill would have further criminalized the boycotts and lunch-counter sit-ins he joined in the 1960s. “I have been guilty of everything that you have charged in this document,” he added.
Torbett stressed that his proposal wouldn’t curb protesters’ rights and wouldn’t affect peaceful protests. He specifically cited the protests last fall in Charlotte after a black man was shot by police.
“There were people who were blocked in on an interstate in the Charlotte area,” he said. “They didn’t know if they were going to be taken over and removed from their cars. Our friends and citizens and neighbors should not have to have that feeling.”
Bumgardner criticized Charlotte leaders for failing to enforce existing laws that addressed what happened last fall. “This is a breakdown of civil order,” he said. “It’s chaos and anarchy, and it needed to be stopped, and it wasn’t because the leadership didn’t do anything about it. ... Why should we think they would arrest them and charge them with economic terrorism?”
McGrady said he’s sympathetic to parts of the bill but thinks it goes too far. “I think the title here is unnecessarily provocative,” he said. “I feel like the thing is an overreach, it’s overly broad.”
Under Torbett’s bill, people who block roads while participating in a “riot or other unlawful assembly” would face Class A1 misdemeanor charges, the misdemeanor category with the longest sentences for jail, probation or community service. Illegally blocking roads for any other reason would remain a Class 2 misdemeanor.
The bill would also allow local governments to sue people convicted of riot, unlawful assembly or traffic obstruction charges for the cost of the law enforcement response.
Penalties would be even tougher for anyone convicted of the new crime of “economic terrorism,” which the bill defines as “a criminal offense that impedes or disrupts the regular course of business” by causing damage of at least $1,000 with the intent to “intimidate the civilian population” or a government entity. That would be a Class H felony, which typically carries a prison sentence of four to 25 months.
Several people spoke against the bill during a short public hearing Tuesday. “We have to remember that our country was founded by people who protested, and some committed criminal acts at the time,” said Brian Irving of the N.C. Libertarian Party. “The intention may be to prevent riots, but that stuff is already against the law. The word terrorism only works if we get terrorized. We’re making terrorism everything.”
Torbett said he recognizes that most of the activities addressed in the bill are already illegal, but he “felt the need to ratchet it up” in hopes of creating a stronger deterrent.
Torbett’s co-sponsor, Republican Rep. John Blust of Greensboro, said he was unable to leave a building in downtown Charlotte during the protests. “I was stuck there for an hour needing to go somewhere,” he said. “What about my rights? I have a right not to listen to what they’re saying.”
Torbett’s bill also included a mandate for local governments: Whenever more than 10 people block traffic, local officials must immediately “dispatch available law enforcement officers ... with directions to clear the roads.” Police sometimes wait to see if protesters will disperse on their own before using force to clear streets.