Why did the North Carolina House vote overwhelmingly a few days ago to toughen penalties for those engaged in violent rioting? I’ll let Rep. Abe Jones of Wake County sum it up: “I despise somebody who would go out and tear up another person’s property that they didn’t pay for and take advantage of a situation — sometimes a very good protest — and then flip it.”
Rep. Jones, a former Superior Court judge, was one of several Democrats to vote for House Bill 40, which prevailed on a 75-43 vote. Its primary sponsors include House Speaker Tim Moore of Cleveland County; Republican Charlie Miller, who is also a Brunswick County deputy sheriff; Republican John Sauls, a minister from Lee County; and Democrat Shelly Willingham, a veteran lawmaker and business consultant from Edgecombe County.
The bill will likely pass the North Carolina Senate. If its broad coalition of supporters holds together, Gov. Roy Cooper will not be able to stop it.
Although I grant this may be a case of hope triumphing over experience, since Cooper vetoed a similar bill last session, I really think he ought to sign H.B. 40 or at least not veto it. Democratic opponents insist, outrageously, that it is simply an attempt to criminalize political protests. Some even go so far as to accuse Moore and the other sponsors of having a racist intent, given how often they’ve cited the example of the 2020 riots that broke out after George Floyd’s murder.
In making this argument, opponents are conflating the very phenomena — protests and riots — that bill supporters have taken great care to distinguish. The constitutional right to assemble peaceably to express political views is broadly supported and exercised. Such a right does not, however, empower protestors to become rioters.
What’s the difference? North Carolina law already defines a riot as “a public disturbance involving an assemblage of three or more persons which by disorderly and violent conduct, or the imminent threat of disorderly and violent conduct, results in injury or damage to persons or property or creates a clear and present danger of injury or damage to persons or property.”
You can, for example, gather in a large group to express your views on public property, so long as you obtain the relevant permits and otherwise take steps to avoid obstructing the normal public use of such property. You can’t just throng into the streets and block traffic, however. You can’t “occupy” the offices of public officials you don’t like, or try to force your way into jails or police stations. You can’t stand on public overpasses and drop bricks onto cars passing underneath. You can’t assault people. You can’t trespass onto private property, or wreak damage on it, or loot it.
These acts are already illegal. Alas, in recent years rioters here in North Carolina have committed each of these crimes, and more besides. Only some of the perpetrators were arrested. Only some of those received significant punishments. Moore drew the logical conclusion that current laws “were not sufficiently strong enough to guarantee that those who engaged in the most violent and destructive behavior would ever see the inside of a jail cell.”
He and other sponsors believe that raising the most serious of these offenses from misdemeanors to felonies would serve the cause of justice, preserve public order and private property, and deter future protestors from become rioters in the first place. For example, if people willingly engage in rioting that causes a death, or serious bodily injury, or property damage exceeding $2,500, they’d now be charged with a felony.
Shouldn’t they be?
Cooper has an opportunity here to endorse a bipartisan measure that will make North Carolinians safer. He can demonstrate that the shrillest, most extreme voices in the Democratic Party do not speak for the party as a whole — just as he has insisted GOP lawmakers not indulge the shrillest, most extreme voices of the populist right.
He can lead by example.