Less than 10 percent of the 2,400 protests that took place in the wake of the death of George Floyd involved violence, according to a report from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project. The report also noted that even in the few cities with sustained unrest, demonstrations involving violence stayed in the same area.
Despite the limited impact of unrest, calls for “law and order” have grown in volume over time, a demand that many may find easier to grasp, or embrace, than dismantling systemic racism. During the Republican National Convention, Rudy Giuliani went so far as to say, “Black Lives Matter and antifa sprang into action and, in a flash, they hijacked the peaceful protest into vicious, brutal riots.”
It’s difficult to draw straight lines between cause and effect in the current, combustible mix of pandemic restrictions, illness, economic distress and well-documented incidents of violent behavior by police. But no one in a position to consider or forward the changes BLM protestors are demanding thinks anything approaching a riot will help.
A number of recent bills have proposed ways to hold, or define, the line between a riot and a protected assembly, sometimes in the context of other reforms. Here are some examples of proposals since July, with links to the complete details of each bill.
B23-0882, for the District of Columbia, is a comprehensive policing and justice reform bill that addresses a number of issues. It outlines guidelines intended to clarify appropriate response to Constitutionally protected assemblies. It states that officers should not be deployed in riot gear to such events unless there is an immediate risk of bodily injury to them. They may not be used to disperse an assembly if so attired. The act also prohibits riot tactics such as the use of chemical irritants or less-lethal projectiles, including foam-covered bullets and stun grenades, for this purpose.
Michigan HB6204 makes it a felony for a person to assault a first responder that is attempting to discharge their duties during a riot or civil disturbance, punishable by imprisonment for not more than five years or a fine not to exceed $5,000 (or both). Acts considered as “assault” include spitting or otherwise transferring bodily fluids. If the assault results in serious injury or death, or involves the use or display of a deadly weapon, the penalty is increased to up to 20 years in prison and $20,000 in fines.
HB6158, another Michigan bill, exempts a governmental agency from liability if engaged in the discharge of governmental functions, including a tactical operation taken to deal with a riot. This protection would not apply if injury or damage result from “willful, callous or wanton disregard” established by clear and convincing evidence.
Ohio HB735 requires law enforcement officers to wear a clearly visible badge and identification while on duty. This includes those appointed to patrols by a mayor during a riot or emergency.
HB5125, a Virginia bill, defines a riot as an assembly of three or more persons with an intent to commit acts of unlawful force or violence that could jeopardize public safety, peace or order. Each person who participated in such assembly would be guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor. If carrying a firearm or other weapon, including a laser, blunt instrument or shield, they would be guilty of a Class 5 felony.
New Jersey A4432 orders the state’s attorney general to create a public awareness campaign to promote safe engagement in demonstrations, protests and other forms of public safety. This would include education regarding the permit process, dangers of obstructing traffic and existing law relating to rioting, obstructing public highways, disorderly conduct and failure to disperse.
Among other provisions, Minnesota HF2 asks the commissioner of commerce to work to resolve complaints regarding the handling of insurance claims from businesses affected by riots or civil commotion. Insurers are required to provide details regarding the number of such claims, policies not renewed for businesses affected by these events or rate increases for those so affected or in the geographic area where the riot or civil commotion occurred.
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