The N.C. Judiciary Committee is considering a bill to increase penalties for damaging property while rioting. It was reintroduced last week by Republicans in the North Carolina House after Democratic Governor Roy Cooper vetoed a similar bill last year. At that time, Republicans presumably did not have the votes to override him, falling short of the three-fifths threshold. 

The legislation comes following millions of dollars in property damage across North Carolina during protests following the death of George Floyd in 2020. 

This year, Republicans have enough seats in the state senate and hold 71 out of 120 seats in the state house, one short of the 72 needed to override a Governor Cooper veto. 

Rep. Shelly Willingham, D-Edgecombe, is one of four primary sponsors of the bill, along with three Republicans, including Speaker of the House Tim Moore, R-Cleveland.

House Bill 40 (H.B. 40) would make rioting a felony if it resulted in over $1,500 worth of property damage, involved dangerous weapons or substances, or resulted in someone’s death. It would also make assaulting a police officer or emergency personnel a felony. The previous version of the bill, House Bill 805, was met with strong opposition from Democrats and social justice advocates, who called it racist and intended to muzzle the exercise of First Amendment rights.

Last year, Governor Cooper vetoed the bill, saying it was “unnecessary and is intended to intimidate and deter people from exercising their constitutional rights to peacefully protest.”

Speaker Moore responded by saying Cooper was pandering to the left.

“I watched rioters cause enormous damage to downtown Raleigh while the governor did nothing,” Moore said. “Today’s veto is another slap in the face to the small-business owners and residents of cities and towns across this state that were damaged by lawless riots.”

Willingham, a former police officer who served in Washington, D.C., during the late 1960s and early 1970s, was one of two Democrats who voted with Republicans to pass the bill last year. The other was Rep. Michael Wray, D-Northampton. Both were re-elected to the state House this year. 

“I know most of the people that come out and demonstrate or march, or whatever, they’re doing it in a peaceful way, and they have the right attitude as to why they’re out there,” said Willingham. “But I also know that it’s always possible for that element on the side to take advantage of legitimate protests and turn it into something else.”

Willingham said he feels strongly that “there is never a reason” to destroy property or hurt others, including law enforcement officers, and that those who do so should be held responsible.

“I’ve been on that line, I’ve been the one in uniform, I’ve been the one where people have shot at me, thrown rocks and bricks, and I’ve been between people breaking the law, and trying to enforce the law,” Willingham said.

Willingham told The News and Observer he would keep an open mind when the time comes for overriding some of Cooper’s vetoes. He considers any legislation that will, in his mind, have a positive influence on his district, which includes Edgecombe, Martin, and Bertie counties.

If Governor Cooper vetoes the bill again, Willingham said he would vote to override, all but ensuring a path for H.B. 40 to become law. 

Despite criticism from leftwing social justice activists, Willingham rejected the notion that the bill is racist, stating that the legislation applies to everyone and that he does not see it as racist. 

The bill will likely be heard next time the house’s Judiciary 2 committee meets.