Crime

Abbott Wants to Crack Down on Rioting by Creating a New Slate of Felonies

Gov. Greg Abbott says Texas is not going to tolerate violence, vandalism or rioting.
Gov. Greg Abbott says Texas is not going to tolerate violence, vandalism or rioting. Gage Skidmore
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott talked tough on rioters during a press conference at the Dallas Police Association building yesterday, laying out proposed legislation for a crackdown on protests gone awry.

“Texas is not going to tolerate violence, vandalism or rioting,” Abbott said.

The Constitution guarantees the right to peaceably assemble, he said, not to riot, rob, loot, set fires or hurt anyone. Abbott said all of these actions were tolerated in Dallas during Black Lives Matter protests earlier this year.

Under the new proposals, causing injury or destroying property in a riot will be a felony that will lead to jail time. Striking a law enforcement officer during a riot will lead to a mandatory minimum jail sentence of at least six months. “This includes striking officers with things like bricks and bottles and other projectiles,” Abbott said.

Using lasers to target law enforcement will be a felony that will lead to jail time. Abbott said law enforcement officers have been injured by lasers during protests.

Blocking hospital entrances and exits by protesters and rioters will be a felony that will lead to jail time. Abbott said that this was seen recently during a demonstration in Los Angeles. “It poses a grave danger to the injured in need of medical care,” he said.

“Like every profession, there are going to be those individuals who don’t deserve to wear the badge.” – Dallas Police Association President Mike Mata

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Using fireworks during protests and riots will be a crime resulting in jail time. Abbott said law enforcement officers have been injured by fireworks during demonstrations, and they also can resemble the sound of gunfire and confuse the police.

Some people participate in riots by providing funding or organizational assistance, Abbott said. This will be a felony that will lead to jail time. Abbott said he’s also proposing giving the attorney general the power to pursue civil penalties against people and organizations that assist in riots.

People charged with these offenses must remain in jail at least until their first court appearance. “This will prevent the mockery of the revolving door arrests that we saw in Dallas during the riots that we saw earlier this year,” Abbott said.

While some of the actions mentioned in Abbott’s proposals are already illegal, his legislation would stiffen punishment for these offenses.

Dallas Police Association President Mike Mata acknowledged that there are bad officers in police departments all over the country. “This is a profession of, just in the state of Texas, 70,000 police officers. Across the country, that’s 600,000 police officers,” Mata said. “Like every profession, there are going to be those individuals who don’t deserve to wear the badge.”

Mata said he and the other good apples on the force will do everything they can to rectify this, but that defunding is not the answer. He said officers go out and risk their lives for people regardless of their feelings about law enforcement.

“What Gov. Abbott is doing today is standing up for the rights of those who deserve to be heard in a peaceful, respectful way,” Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen said.

But Lee Daugherty, a local activist and organizer, said Abbott's proposals cast too wide a net and play into an ongoing theme of criminalizing protests. As an organizer, Daugherty said the proposal that would turn organizational and funding assistance of a riot into a felony stuck out to him the most.

He said it feeds legitimacy to conspiracy theories that the likes of George Soros are responsible for civil unrest across the country. Besides this, he worries that under this proposal the bad actions of a few at an otherwise peaceful protest would lead to organizers being charged with felonies. "That's pretty absurd on its face," Daugherty said. 

Abbott recently announced several other legislative proposals “that defund cities that defund their police departments.” The other proposals would eliminate annexing powers and freeze property tax revenue of any Texas city that defunds its police department.

Shenita Cleveland, a business owner and local activist, was one of several people arrested by DPD in downtown during protests earlier this year. "[Abbott's] latest efforts show just how deep racism and systemic oppression run in our state," Cleveland said.

Instead of potentially criminalizing protesters with proposals like these, Cleveland said Abbott should focus on assisting community-led efforts to transform the criminal justice system.

"Abbott’s latest call for new crimes and mandatory jail time against protesters is exactly why many of us are taking to the streets," she said. "This is a moral issue that goes back to slavery and needs a more humane approach, one that obviously this governor is unequipped to handle."
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Jacob Vaughn, a former Brookhaven College journalism student, has written for the Observer since 2018, first as clubs editor. More recently, he's been in the news section as a staff writer covering City Hall, the Dallas Police Department and whatever else editors throw his way.
Contact: Jacob Vaughn