After a tense debate Tuesday, the Georgia Senate passed a bill intended to ratchet up criminal penalties for offenses during public protests and hold local governments civilly liable for lax efforts pursuing criminals.

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Cataula Republican Sen. Randy Robertson defended his “Safe Communities Act” against accusations from Democrats he is using fears among conservatives lingering from the summer of 2020’s racial and social justice protests as justification for trampling on the public’s constitutional right to freedom of speech and assembly.

Robertson said his legislation clarifies the definitions of punishment for people who damage property, injure others, or block a road while protesting.

Senate Bill 171 now is teed up for the House after a party line 31-21 vote on the final day of the 2022 session for legislation to clear at least one chamber. The measure makes it a felony carrying up to a five years in prison when someone is convicted of obstructing a street, engaging in violent protests with more than seven people, or defacing a publicly owned monument or structure.

Before holding a protest or rally on public property, organizers must also obtain permission from the local government and police departments.

Robertson said it’s imperative to hold local officials more accountable by allowing lawsuits if officials refuse to let police intervene when demonstrations get out of hand.

“When a city government intentionally fails to protect its citizens, when they intentionally sit at their desk while their citizens are being slain, while businesses are being destroyed and while property that taxpayers paid for is burning in the streets, then they should lose their sovereign immunity,” Robertson said.

According to Robertson and supporters of this election year’s Republican get-tough-on-crime platform, it is a correct response to the violence that played out in the summer of 2020 when an encampment of protestors violently occupied a Wendy’s following Rashard Brooks’ shooting death by a police officer. Demonstrations spiraled out of control, resulting in the shooting death of 8-year-old Secoriea Turner and the burning of businesses and government property.

Some progressive, libertarian, conservative, and free speech organizations oppose Robertson’s bill. Detractors say the bill could be used to thwart the rights of two or more people protesting outside an abortion clinic or people rallying for voting rights outside a state capitol.

Democratic Sen. Harold Jones, an Augusta attorney, said the bill could lead to wrongful arrests when strangers are held responsible for the offenses of others during protests.

Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler, a Stone Mountain Democrat, said the bill criminalizes peaceful protests “in the cradle of the Civil Rights movement” and values free speech as a greater threat than a gun.

Protests and rallies broke out in Atlanta and other cities across Georgia and the nation as Americans took to the streets to demonstrate outrage over the killing and mistreatment of Black people at the hands of police.

Macon Democratic Sen. David Lucas, a founder of 100 Black Men and soldier in the civil rights movement, called Georgia’s protest bill an affront to Black people.

“None of you had to go out and walk because of the color of your skin,” he said. “And now you want to come to this General Assembly and talk about rights, you want to come in this General Assembly and talk about law and order?”

But Robertson shot back people telling “war stories” about protesting during the 1960s, or even as recently as 2020, should get off their soapbox and quit politicking for votes.

“It’s 2022, if you’re not out there fighting the fight, I hate to bring it to you. It just doesn’t count.” Robertson said.

Sen. Michelle Au, a Democrat from Johns Creek, says Robertson and his party recently passed legislation eliminating the requirement for Georgians to obtain concealed weapon permits under the guise that is government intrusive.

“We’ve recently heard the argument that the permitting process for carrying loaded firearms in public carry violates Georgians Second Amendment rights and here we see a permitting process required for assembly, protests and rallies, so given this, why is the Second Amendment more important than the First Amendment?” Au said.

Senator John Albers, a Republican from Roswell, said the failure of the Atlanta leaders to enforce the law against rioters justifies stronger law.

“We have a right to protest, to demonstrate or support a cause, ” Albers said. “But if you break the law, you have the right to remain silent and be placed under arrest.”

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