It takes only three people to make a riot, according to HB 40, the Protest Bill that has been ratified by both houses and which Gov Roy Cooper declined to veto. This means it’s the law of the land as of right now, so it’s worth exploring its terms.

The bill defines a riot as three or more people creating a “public disturbance.” In addition, they must exhibit “disorderly and violent conduct, or the imminent threat of disorderly and violent conduct.” The group of three or more must also commit “injury or damage to persons or property or create[s] a clear and present danger of injury or damage to persons or property” to be considered riotous.

They’re handing out misdemeanor charges for these offenses, to be upgraded to felony if the accused has caused more than $2,500 in property damage, has a weapon or “uses a dangerous substance.”

It threatens organizers, too, promising Class E felonies to anyone who “incites or urges another” in a demonstration that causes more than $2,500 in damages. And it opens them up to civil suits for damages.

It also elevates “assault on emergency personnel” to felony status, even though we all know how loosely agents of law enforcement interpret the term “assault” when it’s on one of their own.

This law doesn’t explicitly make public protest illegal, though it comes close — aren’t all protests supposed to be “disorderly”? But it highly disincentivizes this fundamental civil right.

Ironically, the law seems crafted to quash the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020 and afterwards. But in reading it, the terms seem to apply to many of the right-wing public actions we’ve seen. The armed protest against the lockdown in Raleigh in May 2020 violated several of the terms of this law. The white supremacists with guns who were “protecting” the downtown Confederate monument in July 2020 could be charged with felonies under this law.

The people who fought police and stormed the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 would be charged with felonies under this law, as would Donald Trump. That’s the thing about setting a trap: It doesn’t always catch what you want it to.

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