The Alabama House of Representatives passed legislation Thursday changing the definition of a riot and greatly increasing the penalties for being involved in a riot. House Bill 445 is sponsored by state Rep. Allen Treadaway, R-Morris, a retired Birmingham police assistant chief.
Treadaway said that he was inspired to sponsor the legislation from the violence and destruction he witnessed last year in downtown Birmingham, where a political protest turned raucous and some vandalized buildings, burglarized businesses, fought police and attacked reporters.
“We watched across the country this past summer, a lot of the cities burned, and officers were assaulted and even protestors injured and hurt,” Treadaway said. “That came to Birmingham.”
Black lawmakers suggested that this law targeted Black Alabamians, but Treadaway pushed back on that.
“The ones we arrested were all races and genders,” Treadaway said of the rioters in Birmingham. “Two thirds of them were from outside of Birmingham and the state.”
“We must protect Alabama businesses, public property, and first responders from the kind of mob rule that took over the streets of Birmingham this summer, and my legislation establishes a firm first step toward achieving that goal,” Treadaway said.
Democrats opposed the legislation which, greatly increases the penalties for participating a riot, assaulting a police officer, blocking an interstate or inciting others to be involved in a riot.
Rep. Mary Moore, D-Birmingham, said: “You said that was in response to what happened in Birmingham, but it’s not. This has been introduced in seventeen states and is part of a national movement.”
Democrats argued that the bill violates Americans’ free speech rights to protest.
“When protest turns to violence, that liberty no longer applies,” Treadaway said.
Rep. Sam Jones, D-Mobile, is the former Mayor of Mobile.
“I understand what you are trying to do, but it won’t work,” Jones said.
Jones said this bill attempts to use “brute force” to deal with unrest without addressing the root causes of the unrest: “In the last year, 971 citizens have been killed in confrontations with police and in the last five years over 5,000 have been killed.”
Jones said that the hardest thing he had to do when he was mayor was to go to the hospital after a police officer was killed.
“I understand both sides,” Jones said. “I am a former protestor. If I had not been a protestor, I don’t think none of us would be here today.”
Alabama Democratic Party Chairman Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, said of George Floyd’s death: “We all watched a person get murdered on television and we can’t even get to a place where we all acknowledge there is a problem with policing.”
The outcome was never really in doubt. The Republican supermajority easily voted to cloture House Democrats’ efforts to filibuster in a 73 to 26 vote.
HB445, as amended and substituted on the floor of the House, passed 74 to 25. The bill now goes to the Alabama Senate for their consideration.
Thursday was day 16 of the 2021 Legislative Session. The state Legislature will return on Tuesday, March 30 after taking a week off for a spring break.