Lawmakers impose tougher penalties for riot
RALEIGH, NC – The door to Alan Horwitz’s store is a tangible reminder of the riots of last May.
The door is heavy and requires a little effort to open. It’s solid steel, and it replaces a wooden one destroyed by looters ten months ago.
“The second night (May 31) they managed to remove the plywood because it was all we had at the time,” recalls Horwitz. “There was no more glass.
When protests erupted nationwide last May over the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, many turned into riots the first weekend after Floyd’s death. In North Carolina, riots broke out in Charlotte, Raleigh, Fayetteville, Asheville and Greenville. Horwitz’s jewelry and loan business in downtown Raleigh suffered approximately $ 100,000 in damage, including the theft of approximately $ 10,000 in merchandise.
In response, state lawmakers this week introduced a law to toughen sanctions in the event of a riot. Right now, if you’re in a riot, you could face a misdemeanor charge that involves about a month of community service, depending on your background. Anyone who takes part in a riot that causes at least $ 1,500 in property damage or serious bodily harm can face a felony charge that carries a sentence of about six months, on average.
Lawmakers are now proposing to charge all participants in the riots with crimes, with serious damages of up to one year of probation or imprisonment. The measure is part of a larger criminal justice bill requiring all licensed peace officers to receive training in ethics, mental health and implicit bias. It would also create a statewide confidential database of disciplinary action taken against law enforcement officials.
Riot sanctions make activists like Kerwin Pittman nervous. Pittman took part in several protests in 2020. He said the definition of a riot is too broad and could potentially be used to bring together protesters who, however passionate they may be, do no harm.
“I have seen individuals who are protesting peacefully in fact arrested for something someone next to them has done,” he says. “We are really walking a thin line when it comes to indicting individuals, and in particular turning the charge from a misdemeanor to a felony.”
The bill’s sponsor Sen. Danny Britt, (right) from Robeson County, said the measure would also include new training requirements for riot and crowd control, which should help prevent any arrests unjustified in a demonstration situation. He says anyone arrested will always have to be convicted by a court before serving a sentence. Still, Pittman says even a felony charge could hamper a person’s ability to find employment or housing.
Horwitz says he is for any measure that would deter future riots. In the meantime, he’s working with law enforcement to identify the people who ransacked his store, though no one has yet been charged. But Horwitz says the greatest need is for stronger leadership when protests threaten to turn violent.
“At the end of the day, we have to be protected, and that starts with the leadership here having enough authority to stop things before it happens,” he says.
Britt says the bill could be heard as early as next week.