In the wake of high-profile protests of “Cop City” in Atlanta, Georgia’s Republican lawmakers are pushing a trio of bills aimed at cracking down on street protests and riots. 

“Our governor and our attorney general have made it clear that Georgia will provide no safe haven to rioters,” said Rep. Mike Cheokas (R-Americus), a sponsor of House Bill 505, which would sharply increase the severity of the offense of rioting from a misdemeanor to a felony, punishable by up to 20 years in prison. (By contrast, all misdemeanors in Georgia carry a sentence of up to one year in jail.)

HB505 passed the House by a 98-73 vote and now is under review by the Senate Judiciary Committee. 

For people who’ve been jailed, Senate Bill 63 adds 53 new misdemeanor and felony charges–including “unlawful assembly”–that would require posting cash or property bail to gain release from pretrial detention. 

The third bill, House Bill 500, creates a new category of felony that’s more severe than first-degree arson for setting fire to a police vehicle. The punishment ranges from five to twenty years in prison and up to a $100,000 fine. 

HB500 was filed a month after a Jan. 20 protest of the proposed Public Safety Training Center, where masked activists set a police cruiser on fire and smashed several windows in downtown Atlanta. , “sends a signal to troublemakers throughout the country that they won’t get a slap on the wrist if they come here and engage in rioting. We will prosecute the violent in order to protect the peaceful and innocent,” said Cheokas.

YouTube video
The Georgia General Assembly debates House Bill 505, which would make “rioting” a felony

Many Democratic lawmakers and First Amendment advocates warn that it would be easy to apply these bills over broadly, particularly HB500 and HB505, with the potential to chill activism and the right to protest.

“What this is asking for is that you do not dare to assemble and exercise your First Amendment [rights],” said Rep. Solomon Adesanya (D-Marietta) during testimony for HB505.

Adesanya used Atlanta civil rights icon John Lewis as an example. What if these anti-protest bills had been law in the 1960’s? Lewis was arrested 45 times over his lifetime for agitating for civil rights—including lunch counter sit-ins, the Freedom Rides on interstate buses, and the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march. 

“On March 7, 1965, Lewis and hundreds of protesters gathered on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, to exercise their First Amendment right of the people to peacefully assemble and to express their grievances to the government. In this instance, the policeman attacked these peaceful protesters and injured many of them who locked arms together and fought for freedom,” said Adesanya.

HB505’s opponents point out that Georgia law defines rioting in a broad fashion as: “Any two or more persons who shall do an unlawful act of violence or any other act in a violent and tumultuous manner commit the offense of riot.” The second part of the definition, about “any other act in a violent and tumultuous manner,” strikes some as too open to interpretation.

“I immediately think—boy, that language does sound awfully vague, and the kind of latitude that it grants law enforcement is sufficiently broad that it could conceivably cover a whole range of behavior,” said Will Creeley, legal director of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), a Philadelphia-based, free-speech legal advocacy group.

On the other hand, making rioting a felony means that prosecutors would have a higher burden to prove their case, Creeley said. “The real devil will be in the details in terms of the application of the law in individual instances.”

In 1962, Nashville police officers carry John Lewis to the police wagon after he failed to obey orders to move away from a restaurant during a sit-in protest against segregation. (Photo by Jimmy Ellis)

SB63: Expanding cash bail offenses

The same is true with SB63, which would require cash bail for 53 more offenses than under current law, including “obstructing” a police officer, domestic terrorism, rioting, inciting to riot, affray, unlawful assembly, and a “terroristic threat or act.” 

“These are not mistakes. These are not unintentional acts. These are people choosing to violate the law,” said Sen. Randy Robertson (R-Cataula) of SB63, which passed on a 31-21 vote, mostly along party lines, and has advanced to the House for more debate.

The requirement of a cash bond for this broad array of offenses is “significant,” FIRE’s Creeley said. “That feels as if it could really be to the detriment of folks out on the street exercising their First Amendment rights in a dissenting or critical way that attracts the attention of law enforcement.”

If passed, SB63 would only make it harder and more expensive for people and their families to bail them out of jail before a court date, said Rep. Carolyn Hugley (D-Columbus). “Families are the ones who are going to suffer.”

But supporters of the measures framed them as necessary to send a stern message to out-of-state demonstrators. “I don’t know why people can’t understand that Georgia people don’t do this, and so don’t come to Georgia if you’re going to burn a police car or break into businesses. We don’t want it,” said Rep. Penny Houston (R-Nashville) during the House debate. 

That echoes statements from Gov. Brian Kemp, who has blamed “out-of-state rioters” and a “network of militant activists who have committed similar acts of domestic terrorism across the country” for destructive acts during Cop City protests. 

“What this is asking for is that you do not dare to assemble and exercise your First Amendment [rights],”

Rep. Solomon Adesanya (D-Marietta)

Anti-riot bills spread 

Anti-riot bills have popped up in many Republican-controlled states since the massive protests after a police officer murdered George Floyd in the summer of 2020. 

In Florida, a 2021 law establishing expanded new definitions for rioting and increasing penalties against those convicted of the crime is on hold by a federal trial court. It’s awaiting a Florida Supreme Court ruling on the legal definition of a “riot.” 

Opponents say the definition is vague and overly broad, so law enforcement could prosecute innocent bystanders if a riot broke out at a peaceful protest.

In August, a United Nations committee issued a report stating that laws like Florida’s “unduly restrict the right to peaceful assembly.”

During last year’s legislative session in Georgia, Republican senators attempted to pass the “Safe Communities Act,” which would have imposed harsher penalties on those who commit crimes during protests and required protesters first to obtain a permit from their local government. That bill died in the House last April.


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