An anti-rioting bill quickly won approval in the North Carolina House on Feb. 8 after six Democrats threw their support behind the measure.

House Bill 40, Prevent Rioting and Civil Disorder, passed with a veto-proof 75-43 majority. The bill would establish a new level of felony penalties for rioters who cause property damage or serious bodily injury or death to others, including physical violence to first responders.

Joining Republicans in supporting H.B. 40 were Democratic Reps. Cecil Brockman of Guilford County, Laura Budd of Mecklenburg County, Abe Jones of Wake County, Garland Pierce of Scotland County, Michael Wray of Northampton County, and Shelly Willingham of Edgecombe County.

Before passing the full House, lawmakers adopted several amendments to tone down the penalties or wording of the bill, including one that raised the threshold amount for property damage to face a felony charge from $1,500 to $2,500.

Supporters say H.B. 40 is necessary to discourage the types of property damage seen across North Carolina during protests following the death of Georgia Floyd in 2020. Many of the protests turned into riots, resulting in millions of dollars in property damage.

“This bill is designed to punish those who are either inciting or actively engaged in criminal conduct, not the person who showed up to protest, as their right would allow,” said House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland.

Rep. Ken Fontenot, R-Nash, said that he witnessed firsthand the devastation to local businesses in Wilson from riots in 2020.

“What I appreciate about this bill is that it protects low-income, African-Americans,” he said. “When you look across the nation at where these riots took place — Los Angeles, Chicago, Minneapolis — black neighborhoods were the neighborhoods that were hurt. African-Americans are the one who foot the bill, not lawyers.”

Rep. Charles Miller, R-Brunswick, shared his own experience as a chief deputy in the Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office. He said that police worked to protect peaceful protesters from “the agitators,” who threw rocks, chunks of brick, and frozen water bottles at them.

“Just to make a point, I think we arrested six people and maybe one of them was African-American. A majority of the crowd was white,” Miller said. “This is not about taking away peaceful protest. It’s about protecting the property and protecting the law enforcement officers and first responders.”

Opponents argue the measure is racist and would quell free speech.

“God knows we don’t want another riot, but we do want people to feel comfortable to protest, to assemble,” said Rep. Marcia Morey, D-Durham. “I think this has a chilling effect on those constitutional rights.”

“We all know this is an anti-Black Lives Matter bill,” said Melissa Price Kromm, executive director of N.C. Voters for Clean Elections, when the bill was before  the House Judiciary Committee earlier in the day. “This overly broad, still problematic bill is not about protecting peace. It’s about silencing dissent.”

Both chambers of the General Assembly passed a bill similar to H.B. 40 in the 2021 long session — the Senate by a 25-19 vote and the House with a 63-41 vote. Two House Democrats joined Republicans to support the measure, while every Senate Democrat voted no.

Later, Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the billsaying, “People who commit crimes during riots and at other times should be prosecuted and our laws provide for that, but this legislation is unnecessary and is intended to intimidate and deter people from exercising their constitutional rights to peacefully protest.”

H.B. 40 now goes to the Senate.