ATLANTA (AP) — Protesters brought calls for changes to Georgia's laws regarding use of force and voting to the General Assembly on Monday, as some lawmakers inside the Capitol mounted a renewed push for a bill requiring heavier penalties for hate crimes. Others, though, expressed more support for police than protesters.
Lawmakers returned to finish out a session delayed for three months because of fears of COVID-19, finding the Capitol much changed by fears of the respiratory illness. House members scattered across not only their normal working spaces but also the spectators' gallery and a second room struggled even to call roll. Some senators used sanitizing wipes on the chamber's main microphone before they would speak.
And only minutes after lawmakers began business, thousands of protesters led by the NAACP marched up to the Capitol. The march was fueled in part over outrage over the death of Rayshard Brooks, 27, a black man who was shot and killed by a white officer on Friday after Brooks seized a stun gun in a struggle and ran away. The city's police chief resigned hours later and the officer who fired the fatal shot was terminated.
A few protesters came inside the Capitol, their chants echoing through a rotunda adorned with monumental portraits, including onetime Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens.
"I thought it right that we come into the people's house, and show them we are not afraid," said Georgia NAACP President James Woodall, his arms linked with protesters encircling the rotunda. "We will not falter, nor will we fail. Nor will we sleep nor eat nor rest until freedom come."
Woodall said he supports the push for a bill to further penalize hate crimes, as well as a push by some other protesters to remove Confederate statues and symbols from the Capitol grounds. But Woodall said his group's top priorities are repealing the state's citizen's arrest law and repealing its "stand your ground" law that allows people to use force without retreating. Woodall also said top priorities are improving elections and working to change state law to define crimes of moral turpitude in such a way that would allow many people previously convicted of felonies to vote again.
House Speaker David Ralston, who has already been pushing for a bill to further penalize hate crimes, told House members that passing such a bill would be "just as important" as passing a state budget. The House passed a bill last year but it has been stalled in a Senate committee. The Blue Ridge Republican said he regard the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery near Brunswick as "hate," and that "we must proclaim from every corner of this state that Georgia is better than this."
"We know if we leave here this session without passing a hate crimes bill — House Bill 426 — it will be a stain on this state we can never wash away," Ralston said in a speech to House members that was interrupted several times by applause.
In the Senate, minority Democrats and some Republicans added their voices trying to nudge the hate crimes bill along. Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan has said he wants to make changes to the bill, but many fear amendments are just a pretext to kill it.
"To others who say they want to improve the bill. I say let's move 426 forward," said Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson, a Stone Mountain Democrat. "And if we can improve it, we can do so on a different piece of legislation."
Like the NAACP, Democrats have a much more extensive agenda beyond hate crimes, including abolishing the state's citizen's arrest law, ending no-knock warrants or allowing people to sue police officers for misconduct. Other proposals shared by House and Senate Democrats include requiring police to announce themselves before serving a warrant, creating a registry of traffic stops to look for racial profiling, banning chokeholds, ending officers' immunity from lawsuits if they've done something wrong, and requiring all officers to wear and use body cameras.
But there's clear opposition to some proposals from Republicans. Sen. Jeff Mullis, a Chickamauga Republican, was one of several Monday to emphasize support for police.
"Right here in Georgia, you'll be safe, Mullis told fellow senators. "If you make a profit, you don't have to worry about looters breaking your storefronts and stealing your property. We are open for business in Georgia with safety, because we support the men and women in blue in this state, and we're going to continue to do so."
Other Republicans and even some Democrats are more open to changes but warn there's not enough time for a big package, with only 10 working days left after Monday. Ralston said he wants hearings on such bills over the summer, possibly setting up action when a new General Assembly convenes in January 2021.