Tolerance of UNC basketball celebrations makes clear that not all ‘riots’ are treated equal

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HB 805 is an attempt to suppress outrage against the root of the problem, which is that Black communities are regularly brutalized by police with near impunity.

The rushing of Franklin Street, the downtown area north of the UNC-Chapel Hill campus, after UNC claims a basketball victory over Duke or the national title, is widely accepted as a traditional celebration. Thousands of students and sports fans flood Franklin, packing the relatively tiny street with boisterous Tar Heel patriotism and dense crowds as far as the eye can see.

This festivity also comes with significant property damage. In 2009, after UNC won its fifth national basketball championship, the 30,000 people filling Franklin Street cost the town several hundred thousand dollars in crowd control. Reports and video footage surfaced of people jumping through bonfires (24 were counted that night, resulting in eight students receiving treatment at the N.C. Jaycee Burn Center), removing street signs, and even a man climbing a light pole and attempting to saw through a live wire with a pocket knife. A similar title victory in 2005 where 45,000 people rushed Franklin cost Chapel Hill and the university $165,000 to manage. In a 1982 victory where Franklin Street was rushed, about 100 vehicles were damaged. All instances of rushing resulted in instances of property damage, theft, and even sexual assault.

A “riot” is legally characterized as an event in which a group disturbs the public peace by expressing a common purpose with the use of violence, disorder, or terror. Under this definition, rushing Franklin Street would be considered a riot. As North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore says, “We are a nation of laws, not a nation of mob rule.”

Moore, along with Republican Reps. Allen McNeill, Charles Miller, and John Sauls filed House Bill 805 this past May that severely increases the penalties for riot offenses. Although engaging in or inciting a riot is currently a misdemeanor or a felony depending on the outcome, all penalties relating to rioting would increase in severity under the proposal — especially if there is property damage of $1,500 or more; if law enforcement personnel are injured; or if the riot results in death. Trespassing or looting and assaults on emergency personnel, including police officers, would also result in harsher penalties.

Supporters of the bill argue that although protests and the freedom of speech are protected, the destruction of property and the assault of police officers should not be allowed.

But if this is true, why are Franklin Street rushes never considered riots?

Sadly, what the state determines to be a “riot” is largely a function of whether it is perceived as a threat to existing power structures – and in particular, white supremacy. Black Lives Matter protests threaten the power of the carceral state and white supremacy in a way that Franklin Street rushes never will. So, although both may result in property damage, only one “riot” is truly transformative in intent.

The United States has a criminal justice system that reconstructs our nation’s violent enslavement of Black people. This is evident in the behavior of Chapel Hill police that reflects the racial violence embedded within legislation like House Bill 805. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and university discouragement (albeit lukewarm), hundreds of UNC students rushed Franklin Street in February and March of this year after a Carolina victory over Duke basketball. The police were called both times, and peacefully dispersed the crowds in less than an hour. This stands in stark contrast to police response to student, faculty, and community protests in 2018 to remove Silent Sam, a commemorative monument to Confederate soldiers on campus. In the latter case, police arrested activists and deployed pepper spray and riot gear. Meanwhile, Silent Sam supporters — some of whom even brought guns to campus — received no such treatment.

HB 805 appears to be targeted towards all riots equally, but as the Franklin Street experiences demonstrate, not all riots are or will be treated equally, and the bill would allow officers to have even greater impunity in targeting protestors of color. HB 805 outlines specific civil action against rioters who destroy property, meaning people can sue for up to three times the value of their property. The blame for property damage during a protest would likely fall disproportionately on Black protestors. During the summer 2020 BLM protests, some of the property damage was blamed on Black protestors even though video footage later revealed that the perpetrator was non-Black or white. The greater penalties for harming a police officer also has insidious consequences for civil protestors, especially Black Lives Matter activists, as police have repeatedly demonstrated their willingness as a racist institution to perpetrate extreme violence.

Another racially charged aspect of the bill is that if there is no District Court Judge or Magistrate available, arrested rioters may be detained for 48 hours — a hold period usually reserved for murder and domestic violence arrestees. This holding period is designed to prevent a suspect from paying their bail and continuing to harm others, but in the case of demonstrations, would serve to simply detain people and prevent them from continuing to exercise their right to free speech for the duration of the protest.

At its core, House Bill 805 is an attempt to suppress outrage against the root of the problem, which is that Black communities are too often brutalized by police with near impunity. This bill is rightfully perceived as saying that the defense of property is more important than the right to react with anger when the justice system continually abuses the safety and well-being of Black people.

Last year, Governor Cooper stated, “Let me be clear about one thing: People are more important than property. Black Lives do Matter.”

Now is the time for the Governor to act upon his promise and keep Black and Brown communities safe from state-sanctioned police violence by vetoing HB 805. Click here to learn more about the details of HB 805.

Emi Abe-Teh is a member of the UNC Chapel Hill, Class of 2023.

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