Georgia House Judiciary committee member Rep. Ed Setzler (R-Acworth) had his constitutional hackles raised high during a Georgia House committee hearing last week on Senate Bill 1, which proposed a new domestic terrorism law.
“It’s not the right to ‘lawful’ assembly, it’s the right to assembly,” he said to the bill’s author, Sen. Bill Cowsert (R-Athens), taking issue with some of the bill’s language.
“I’m not a brilliant word smither,” Cowsert replied. “But if we don’t draw a line somewhere, we are descending into chaos.”
The bill failed to achieve a constitutional majority Tuesday night — short seven votes of the 91 needed to pass, but some late efforts are being made to attach its language to a proposal to create a public list of noncititzens who have committed a felony, said Larry Pelligrini -Executive Director at Georgia Rural Urban Summit.
Civil liberties leaders have on red alert throughout the session over the proposed domestic terrorism bill, interpreting it as a way to make it easier for state and local law enforcement to arrest and jail unruly protesters, particularly those who engaged in a massive Black Lives Matter street protest in downtown Atlanta last year.
It also calls for broad training in “suspicious activity reporting” by police, calling on local law enforcement to send data to a state-level information fusion center for analysis.
“It mirrors the Patriot Act,” said Asma Elhuni, a student organizer at Georgia State University and a Council on American–Islamic Relations activist. “It may also target communities, racially profile communities.”
Otherwise-innocuous activity might trip some alarm, she said. A large purchase of water at Costco or sightseeing photos by the road would normally be a non-event, but if it’s done by a woman in hijab, that might be enough to land someone on a government watch list, she said.
“Once you declare something a terrorism issue, they can do anything.”
Cowsert sought to assuage these concerns by inviting a couple of black speakers to testify on behalf of SB1. State Sen. Lester Jackson (D-Savannah) testified on behalf of the bill. He claimed during testimony that the bill had the backing of the NAACP, a statement that Georgia NAACP president Francys Johnson vigorously disputed later.
“The NAACP opposes SB1 which criminalizes the right to protest,” Johnson wrote on Facebook. “This bill is a direct result of massive protests associated with BLM and Anti-Trump Travel Ban Protests. This law would have made the NAACPs direct action efforts to integrate schools, lunch counters, beaches and other public accommodations domestic terrorism.”
Cowsert also asked Sir Maejor Page, president of Black Lives Matter of Greater Atlanta, to testify in support of the legislation.
I think a word about Page is necessary here: his “organization” has been disavowed by the national leadership of Black Lives Matter.
The formal chapter of Black Lives Matter in Atlanta has consistently opposed SB1.
Page, who is associated with the Nation of Islam, does not support the LGBT-inclusiveness of the formal group. The official Black Lives Matter affiliate in Atlanta wants nothing to do with him, in part because he has been particularly adept at throwing the movement under the bus in service to his personal aggrandizement.
Some of the bill’s language cleans up definitions and extends coverage under existing law to new attacks, like cybercrimes or the use of biological agents. Cowsert cited the recent arrest and federal charges for a North Georgia man allegedly in possession of the ricin toxin as an example.
But the bill’s language defining attacks on “infrastructure” appears vague to me and to other civil libertarians, who believe it opens the door to terrorism charges for protests shutting down a road. Opposition did not split along party lines: some Democrats supported it while some Republicans — strict constitutionalists, Pelligrini said — opposed it.
Other legislation this year in the “Back the Badge” bill has operated in a similar vein, extending mandatory-minimum criminal penalties for shooting a police officer — or a long list of other professions related to public safety, including probation officers, EMTs and HERO-unit drivers.
All sorts of other penalties for misbehavior have been in and out of the Back the Badge bill during the session. At one point, the language called for juveniles convicted of an aggravated assault to face a five-year mandatory minimum sentence. Obstructing a public safety officer would have been worth a year in jail, minimum. And obstructing a road would have been a “high and aggravated” misdemeanor also worth a year. All of those measures failed to make it out of committee. But they show where the authors’ heads were.
I note in passing that Page is now a registered lobbyist. He is claiming credit for having the section of the Back the Badge bill targeting protesters removed.
The legislation appears to be part of a wave of stiffening criminal penalties related to police activity. An Indiana bill (SB 285) would have required public officials to clear reported “mass traffic obstructions” (read: protests) by “any means necessary.” A North Dakota bill with pipeline protests in mind, HB 1203, would have lifted liability from drivers who accidentally hit protesters in roadways.
Neither passed. But Minnesota legislators are currently considering HF 55, which would increase the criminal penalties for obstructing a street, after wide-ranging street protests in the wake of the Philando Castile police shooting last year in Minneapolis.
A word, as an aside, about those street protests downtown last year after the Alton Sterling and Philando Castile police shootings.
Some questioned the act of shutting down a highway as an act of protest over the injustice of the killings. Castile’s apparent crime was driving while black — a police officer believed, wrongly, that he was a criminal suspect. If black motorists cannot expect equal protection by the law while driving on a public highway, there’s some poetic symmetry in denying the use of highways to the public as an act of protest.
When civil rights protesters desegregated lunch counters, they did so by taking a seat and shutting the place down. They filled jails. Their acts were purposefully disruptive. And — as Setzler noted during the hearing last week — Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t exactly have permits in hand for street protests.
(This piece has been corrected to note Rep. Setzler’s position with the committee. As is traditional around here, we regret the error and blame others.)