Opinion: GOP Anti-Riot Bill is Dangerous Virtue Signaling
At it's best, HB40 is ineffective; at it's worst, it will be another weapon in the hand of petty tyrants
It’s not in dispute: rioting is bad. As a journalist, I did on-the-ground coverage at a handful of 2020/2021 riots or “civil disorders” in the Raleigh/Durham area. From my experience, I believe the "anti-riot" bill on track to make it into NC law is more likely to be used against peaceful demonstrators or political dissidents than it is to be used against the type of violent left wing extremists which plagued our streets.
Although a similar bill passed in 2021 was vetoed by Gov. Cooper, this year’s HB40 appears to have enough Democratic support to override a veto. While the bill’s short title, to “Prevent Rioting and Civil Disorder” may accurately describe the legislators’ intent, I do not believe the bill will have that effect in practice.
I don’t have an inherent issue with whether a particular riot related offense is a Class E or a Class F felony, and I think it’s probably good for the victims of a riot to be able to recover compensation. Where I primarily take issue with this bill is on two fronts: a) the framing of the bill as a response to the 2020 riots, and b) how/whether the increased penalties will be applied. Fundamentally, increasing the punishment for a particular crime will not have a deterrence effect if the people violating the already existing laws are not being charged.
My Experience: Police did not arrest rioters
For instance, one of the first riots I documented in person was on August 28, 2020 in downtown Raleigh. The police didn’t appear to be in the vicinity as I witnessed rioters removing barricades and assaulting a WRAL news crew. Though I didn’t personally get a good look, it was also reported that rioters smashed windows on the Wake County Justice Center and vandalized a memorial to fallen deputies.
If you read the WRAL headline, “14 arrested”, you might be satisfied that some justice was served for this riotous behavior. In fact, 13 of those arrests were for curfew violation, and the last was for assaulting a police officer. Not one of those arrests was for inciting the riot, removing barricades, assaulting media, or damaging government property.
Another example: a riot I documented in Durham on the night of April 16, 2021. The event started as an anti-police/anti-prison march which began near the Durham County Jail. As the night progressed, anarchists in black bloc set off fireworks and vandalized businesses, bus stops, and even the sign of the police headquarters. The only law enforcement presence I recall was a police car or two trailing the protest from a distance. As far as I can tell, no one was arrested for this criminal behavior.
I’ll make the same point as 2nd amendment activists whenever a new gun regulation is proposed: if the current laws aren’t being enforced, what good is a new law?
Unlike many countries around the world, the United States has a fairly decentralized law enforcement system. Here in North Carolina each local law enforcement department, whether it’s the Raleigh Police or the Durham Police, the Wake County Sheriff's Office or the Durham County Sheriff’s Office, reports to elected officials at the respective city or county level. The district attorneys, responsible for prosecuting crimes on behalf of the state of North Carolina, are elected directly by the citizens. While HB40 gives these local jurisdictions a heavier hammer in their toolbelt, it’s useless if they are unwilling or unable to wield it against the people inciting or engaging in riotous behavior. If we are holding the state legislature accountable for local political decisions, like riot response, we will often end up with laws that are ineffective at best.
Conclusion: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
THE GOOD: I am a bit intrigued by the order for the NC Department of Justice to consult and create “model policies” for police protest response. The legislature could potentially leverage this into an effective influence on local policies by giving victims of a riot the ability to sue their local jurisdiction if “model policies” were not followed.
THE BAD: I don’t believe this law will be effective in deterring the type of radical leftist activists at the heart of many of the local riots in 2020. While this type of law may be popular with the Republican electorate, it could lull citizens into a false sense of security instead of seeking effective change at the local level.
THE UGLY: In the worse case scenario, these increased penalties could end up being misapplied when the subjects are politically unsavory to whatever jurisdiction they are in, whether it’s BLM protesters in a rural town or right-leaning protesters who come from across the state to make their voices heard the at the state capital, Raleigh. Though I don’t entirely understand how the section on pretrial release differs from the current practice, I strongly believe in the legal concept of “innocent until proven guilty,” and I’m inherently skeptical any law which imposes a punishment before or in the absence of any type of conviction.