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State Sen. Rodger Smitherman: Anti-rioting bill ‘to take us back 60 years,’ really aimed at peaceful protesters

MONTGOMERY — Sen. Rodger Smitherman (D-Birmingham) is already fighting against Rep. Allen Treadaway’s (R-Morris) bill to create new crimes and penalties for individuals who incite or participate in riots.

Although that bill has not even been heard in front of a House committee yet, Smitherman took to the Senate floor on Wednesday afternoon to speak out against the legislation.

Smitherman began his remarks by vaguely decrying “things that were being put in place to, for a lack of a better word, put the foot on people’s necks to try to hold them down.” This would appear to reference a lengthy, impassioned speech he delivered the previous day in which he compared what he sees as voter suppression and systemic forms of oppression to the death of George Floyd.

“Back in the ’60s and the early ’70s, people — because they protested — were arrested, put in paddy wagons and thrown in jail,” he remarked on Wednesday.

He told his colleagues this flashback was relevant due to HB 445, Treadaway’s bill.

Smitherman said that legislation “seeks to take us back 60 years to where we were at that particular time.”

“The bill on its surface makes you think that you’re doing something so wonderful and great,” he stated.

He then spoke about the bill creating the crime of Assault Against a First Responder in the first and second degrees; those arrested for the offenses are initially held for 24 hours before becoming bail-eligible. A First Degree conviction, which would be a Class B felony, results in at least one year in jail, a $15,000 fine, and an order of restitution, and a Second Degree conviction, classified as a Class C felony, carries a minimum six-month jail sentence, a $5,000 fine, and a restitution requirement.

“Now, you’re going to see that and you’re going to say, ‘Smitherman, we should protect our first responders.’ And I agree,” Smitherman commented. “I agree with you all. But that ain’t all this bill does.”

He then honed in on a few aspects of the bill, respectively pertaining to: altering the definition of what constitutes a “riot,” a crime classified as a Class A misdemeanor; creating the new Class C felony crime of “Aggravated Riot,” which requires bodily or property damage to result; upgrading the crime of purposely blocking an Interstate to a felony; instituting a 48-hour hold for any person who is arrested for knowingly participating in or inciting a riot; and mandating a 30-day jail sentence for any person who is convicted of knowingly participating in a riot.

“What this bill is trying to simply do is to shut folks’ mouths [who are] oppressed,” Smitherman then claimed. “That’s what it’s doing.”

He asserted that under the provisions of the bill, people simply “protesting” would be criminalized.

“Protesting — I didn’t say nothing about breaking into the White House,” Smitherman said, potentially meaning to refer to the U.S. Capitol. “I said like Black Lives Matter, protesting out in the streets — protesting. They want to snatch them up, throw them in the paddy wagon, charge them, keep them there 48 hours before they could even go before the judge and then find them guilty — and you can’t get no parole or probation. You’ve got to serve all the time, because you’re out there trying to speak up for being oppressed.”

“I keep telling y’all, why do we keep trying to hurt people? Why do we keep planning to do this as a body? Why as a body of legislators in this whole process that we want to try to do that and hide it under the name that we’re protecting first responders? Send a bill that just does something for first responders — fine,” he added.

He lamented, “[H]ere again, another bomb [has been] laid on us as a body to try to suppress, keep the foot on — in this case it’s not the neck, it’s to keep the foot in people’s mouths, so they can’t say anything about what they’re being suppressed about.”

“We can’t allow to go back 60 years in time to try to oppress people from being able to … speak out,” Smitherman stated. He then asserted that the bill is not about people destroying property or committing physical violence; in reality, the bill explicitly targets those very things on definitional levels.

“We’re talking about people protesting out there like they do with signs and everything else about things they like and don’t like,” he concluded. “So I hope to God that we don’t have to deal with this in the manner that it is now on this particular floor.”

For context, Treadaway, who recently retired as Birmingham Police Department assistant chief following a 31-year career on the force, said in a previous statement that he began drafting the legislation this past summer after a protest in downtown Birmingham became a violent riot that resulted in damage and burglaries for multiple businesses, the vandalization of public property, and injuries to bystanders.

“Because the freedom of speech is so important, our founding fathers made it the first enumerated right in the U.S. Constitution, but when protest turns to violence, that liberty no longer applies,” Treadaway stated last week.

“We must protect Alabama businesses, public property, and first responders from the kind of mob rule that took over the streets of Birmingham this summer, and my legislation establishes a firm first step toward achieving that goal,” he concluded.

HB 445 lists 50 original cosponsors, including House Speaker Mac McCutcheon (R-Monrovia) and Majority Leader Nathaniel Ledbetter (R-Rainsville).

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn