Critics slammed NC GOP’s anti-riot bill as ‘racist.’ This Black Democrat disagrees.

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Legislative Republicans reintroduced a bill in the General Assembly this week to impose stricter penalties for rioting, and while Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper successfully blocked it in 2021, the bill’s prospects of being enacted into law now are greater.

House Bill 40, filed by GOP Speaker Tim Moore on Wednesday, is identical to legislation he introduced during the previous legislative session. It passed both the state House and Senate, but was vetoed by Cooper. Republicans didn’t try to override his veto then, but are expected to test the strength of Cooper’s veto much more this session, now that they’re just one vote shy of total legislative control.

That one-vote gap Republicans need to make up is in the House, but with HB 40’s introduction Wednesday, one House Democrat has already expressed his support for the bill.

Rep. Shelly Willingham, a Rocky Mount Democrat, was one of the four primary sponsors of HB 40. In addition to Moore, the other primary sponsors, Reps. John Sauls and Charles Miller, are both Republicans. Willingham voted for the previous bill Republicans passed, but didn’t sign on as a sponsor at the time.

In an interview, Willingham told The News & Observer he is aware of the intense opposition to the bill by many Democrats and civil rights organizations and advocates, with some saying it could deter people from engaging in demonstrations. Still, he said, his decision to support the bill again this year was “an easy one.”

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 know that 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, who served as a police officer in Washington, D.C. in the late 1960s and early 1970s. “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.”

Ahead of the beginning of the session last month, Willingham told The N&O he would keep an open mind when it comes to legislation that Republicans try to pass over Cooper’s veto this year, saying that his approach to any legislation is whether it’s something that will affect his district, and if so, if it’s something positive.

Rep. Shelly Willingham and his granddaughter Chandler Hinton, 11, look over forms before the opening session of the N.C. House of Representatives Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023.
Rep. Shelly Willingham and his granddaughter Chandler Hinton, 11, look over forms before the opening session of the N.C. House of Representatives Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023.

Willingham reiterated that Thursday, saying that he supported HB 40 and decided to sponsor it this time to emphasize that “this is something I really believe.”

The bill has yet to be heard by a committee, but since it passed both chambers last session, it’s likely that will happen again. And in the event that the bill passes and is vetoed by Cooper again, Willingham said he would continue to support it and vote to override the governor’s veto.

Willingham rejects notion bill is racist

Proponents of HB 40 have said they respect the First Amendment rights of people to protest, but want to deter anyone from engaging in violent behavior. The bill would make rioting a felony if it results in property damage greater than $1,500, involves dangerous weapons or substances, or causes someone’s death. It would also make it a felony to assault police officers or other emergency personnel.

House Bill 805, the previous version of HB 40 that was vetoed in 2021, provoked strong and vocal opposition from Democrats and social justice advocates from groups like Emancipate NC and some local NAACP chapters in the state.

Some activists have called the bill “racist and insidious” and said it was intended to muzzle people from exercising their rights. Some activists also said GOP legislation was an “Anti-Black Lives Matter Bill,” since Moore cited some of the violent incidents, looting and property damage that took place in downtown Raleigh during the 2020 protests following the death of George Floyd as the impetus for the bill.

Kerwin Pittman, a social justice activist, told The N&O after HB 40’s introduction Wednesday that Moore’s decision to resurrect the bill spoke to his “racist agenda and intent,” and said the bill would grant law enforcement officers “more ways to inflict harm on marginalized communities.”

Instead of wanting to stop rioting or looting, Pittman said the bill was meant to discourage “Black and brown communities from speaking out against their brutalization by exercising their constitutional rights.”

Willingham, who is Black, said he had heard similar concerns himself, but rejected the notion that the bill was racist or intended to intimidate people from protesting.

“I don’t see it that way. I think that those who become intimidated — the only way you’re intimidated is if it’s something that you feel like you probably are doing that you shouldn’t be doing,” Willingham said. “But racist? I don’t see it as being racist, because the law applies to everybody.”

Vast majority of officers ‘do the right thing’

Willingham also said he didn’t believe the bill would leave demonstrators susceptible to being charged with a felony for simply brushing up against a police officer, or being pushed by someone else, as opponents of the bill have warned, based on their own experiences participating in protests.

He said he knows what those situations are like, and recalled his experiences serving as a D.C. police officer, which included responding to the April 1968 riots that engulfed the city in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

“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.

Having served as a police officer, Willingham said he believes the possibility for peaceful demonstrators to be charged with assaulting an officer is minimal.

“Most police officers out there, I’m not saying every one of them, but I believe that the vast majority of police officers out there do the right thing,” he said. “And I think they’ve been trained to the point that they know what’s aggressive, and what’s something that’s done to try and cause them to do something they shouldn’t do, and so I trust that.”

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