Julia Slater headshot

On Sept. 1, House Bill 805 was presented to NC Gov. Cooper after passing in the Senate on Aug. 26. HB805 has been referred to as the “Anti-Black Lives Matter Bill” and was introduced by Republican Speaker of the House Tim Moore who claims the bill is intended to deter civil unrest. I’ve read the bill. It has the potential to criminalize protest. 

A wave of similar bills swept the nation as retaliation against last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. Legislators’ attempts to obscure this bill’s pernicious potential with concern for small business owners and emergency personnel is laughably transparent. Instead, our state’s politicians hope to repress righteous unrest and rage by suppressing North Carolinians’ First Amendment rights. 

HB805 supposedly focuses on preventing rioting. However, according to the bill a “riot” requires only a) three people, b) merely the imminent threat of injury or damage to persons or property, and c) public disturbance. By defining “riot” with a bar so low that almost any public gathering could accidentally surpass the requirements, the succeeding penalties listed in the bill can be applied to any protest the state wants. Because of this, I will largely be using the term “protest” to discuss this bill in order to convey that the penalties in HB805 could easily be applied to non-riot situations. 

The bill flat out makes participation in a “riot” a criminal act. It adds additional felonies for those who cause property damage, “serious bodily injury” or death during a protest. Organizers are particularly imperiled by measures that criminalize “inciting” or “urging” others to engage in protest. Anyone found guilty under most of these sections is opened up to financial liability far larger than what any actual property damages may be.

The bill also makes “assault” of emergency personnel — including police, National Guard, and EMS personnel — a felony. Notably, the phrasing that required the assault to cause physical harm was removed from the bill. This has scary implications for protestor standoffs with police and self-defense against police brutality.

If the criminalization of these acts seems perfectly reasonable to you, consider that the United States has a history of surveilling, discrediting and “neutralizing” Black activists. It is rational that groups repeatedly targeted by the police would assume that this bill will be another tool used to suppress their efforts to agitate for civil rights. 

At the very least, HB805 is a disproportionate response to a summer where 97.7% of protest events across the nation were peaceful. When there was violence, last summer showed in stark relief that police, again and again, are the ones to respond with unwarranted force, are liable to encourage violence through covert means and are often directly responsible for the violence at otherwise peaceful protests. 

Instead of addressing any of the root systemic issues that led to the justified outrage displayed by protestors last summer, HB805 raises the stakes of participating in democracy by making it personally risky to exercise your right to free speech and freedom of assembly. I’d like to make clear that although this bill supposedly targets violent “rioters,” the astronomical potential for abuse against nonviolent activists effectively makes HB805 a bill that also targets any protestor — peaceful or not. 

The Governor has until Sept. 11 to decide whether to veto the bill. Even if he already has by the time this piece is published, HB805 is dangerously close to reaching the support needed for the legislature to override the governor’s veto. Despite any claims of righteous intent, HB805 ultimately endangers North Carolinians’ First Amendment rights. Gov. Roy Cooper must veto HB805 and NC Democrats must vote NO in the event of a gubernatorial override. It’s a question of free speech.