Governor Abbott held a news conference in Dallas on Thursday to announce new legislative proposals to address the riots that break out during protests in Texas. He isn’t on the ballot but he spoke during a campaign event joined by police union officials, other Texas leaders, and Republican politicians. They hope to take Texas House seats from Dallas County Democrats in November.
Dallas has seen continuous protests throughout the Summer of Love so it was appropriate that the governor spoke from there. Abbott has been pursuing a law and order message, which is popular with Texans if the latest poll from the New York Times/Siena College is to be believed. The poll shows that law and order is more important than the pandemic for Texans. The catch is that when asked, Texans say that racism in the criminal justice system is a bigger issue than riots in cities across America.
Governor Abbott proposed several aggressive new legislative proposals to raise penalties and create new crimes that would require jail time for offenses committed as protests turn into riots. He said, “Today, we are announcing more legislative proposals to do even more to protect our law enforcement officers as well as do more to keep our community safe.”
The legislation would have to be passed by lawmakers in 2021 and it was not immediately clear that such measures would have the support needed to become law. Abbott’s proposals would create felony-level offenses with mandatory jail time for causing injury or destroying property during what is deemed to be a “riot.” Blocking hospital entrances and using lasers to target police would also be felony offenses that would require a jail sentence, Abbott said. Striking an officer with something like a water bottle would lead to a mandatory minimum of six months in jail.
Currently, the crime of “participating in a riot” is a misdemeanor offense in Texas with a maximum of six months in jail, and is labeled as a gathering of seven or more people that in part, creates a danger to a person or property. Many protesters in Texas have been arrested on suspicion of such offenses since protests erupted in May after Floyd’s death. Others have been charged with felony-level crimes like assault on a police officer, including an 18-year-old who faces up to 20 years in prison for allegedly throwing a water bottle at an officer.
This all sounds reasonable, especially after the scenes of nightly violence and destruction that flood our television screens every morning. After four months, cities are still on fire and people and property are being harmed in the mix. How long is rioting to be considered expected behavior? Perhaps some jail time will get the attention of rioters who are often just ignored by local public officials who are unwilling to take a stand against them.
Texas cities other than Dallas have experienced protests that turn bad since the death of George Floyd. Dallas, though, seems to have consistent protests, more so than the other big cities. Houston, for example, has seen some protests, mostly immediately following Floyd’s death, but not to the extent that Dallas has. Once the defund the police madness came to Texas, specifically in Austin, Governor Abbott began to move to curb that city’s enthusiasm for cutting the police department’s budget and cutting the number of police officers. He suggested he would place the Austin Police Department under state control. He also has previously announced he will see to it that cities that defund police will find property taxes frozen.
Enablers of rioters are not happy about Abbott’s latest announcement. Organizers wonder how police will determine what is a riot and what is not. Here’s a hint – when fires are set and glass windows are shattered, or water bottles and bricks are thrown at law enforcement, it’s a riot. Protesters who are innocently exercising their First Amendment rights are not tossing Molotov cocktails into a police line. This isn’t hard. Police know a riot when they see one.
Abbott’s new proposals already had fierce opposition from organizers. David Villalobos, with the Texas Organizing Project in Dallas, said he is concerned about how police are able to determine when something is a riot and who they will target, and how it will affect a community that already doesn’t trust the police.
“We wouldn’t want [police] to have this wide discretion to deem which protesters are taking part in disorderly conduct or unlawful protests,” he said Thursday. “This seems like a step that would really try to stifle the voice of the people, the people’s right to march and peacefully assemble.”
In Austin, where City Council members last month cut the police budget amid an outcry to defund policing and reinvest in other social programs to reduce crime, Austin Justice Coalition Founder Chas Moore said it seemed “democracy is hanging on by a thread.”
“I don’t think the governor is moving in the right direction if he’s trying to penalize people for protesting or speaking out against the things people have grievances about,” he said. “It’s not going to stop people from protesting, but I do think we have a more emboldened police department and police forces.”
Texas Democrats say that Abbott is trying to deflect attention away from the coronavirus pandemic in the state. I suspect they are seeing the polls that show Trump is up now over Biden more than he has been in recent weeks. Trump’s message of law and order resonates with Texas Republicans and Independents. The New York Times/Siena College poll of likely Texas voters shows a split between Republican and Democrats over whether the pandemic is the top concern or if it is law and order. Also, there is a divide between urban and more rural Texans. The split is also present over the Black Lives Matter movement. It is wearing thin with white and rural voters.
When asked their views of Black Lives Matter, a majority of urban respondents and almost nine out of 10 Black respondents said they have a favorable view of the movement. That contrasts sharply with the nearly three out of five white respondents and two-thirds of rural respondents who said they view the movement unfavorably.
The race between Trump and Biden in Texas will be closer than previous elections if the polling proves true, but Trump will win Texas. Texas is turning purple and Republicans are going to have to get used to working harder to win. Hopefully, Trump can carry down-ballot candidates to victory and Republicans hold the Texas State House and Senate.