Va. domestic terrorism bill sparks hope, concern

WASHINGTON — A new Virginia bill that would define domestic terrorism and terror organizations, in an attempt to prevent tragedies such as the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, is garnering both support and opposition.

The bill, introduced by Del. Marcia Price (D-Newport News) with guidance from Attorney General Mark Herring, defines domestic terrorism as a violent or criminal act that aims to intimidate or instill fear in someone because of their race, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation or disability, or to stop a person from pursuing their constitutional rights.

In addition, the bill would empower the Superintendent of the Virginia State Police to designate three or more people, with an identifiable name or symbol, as a domestic terrorist organization.

Kofi Annan, president of the Fairfax County NAACP told WTOP that had the new bill been law, the Charlottesville tinderbox could have been avoided.

“These groups went there, armed, with the intention of terrorizing the neighborhood,” Annan said.

Until now, law enforcement agencies and local governments have had little legal power to prevent white supremacist groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, from holding rallies.

“These groups often don’t get labeled ‘terrorists,’ they get labeled ‘hate groups,’ which is more protected under the Constitution,” said Annan.

Under the new bill, which has been referred to the House Committee for Courts of Justice, Annan said authorities would be permitted to take action.

“The (proposed) law does not go after speech,” said Annan. “It focuses on actions — actual terrorist acts.”

Thomas O’Connor, president of the FBI Agents Association, is supportive of Virginia’s effort to craft new tools to fight domestic terrorism, but would prefer making the charge of domestic terrorism a federal crime.

“Domestic terrorism is truly a national threat, and the federal government should take the lead on this issue by transforming the existing definition of domestic terrorism in the U.S. Code into a chargeable crime,” said O’Connor, in a statement to WTOP.

However, the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia said it cannot support House Bill 1601.

“Though HB 1601 seeks to address the scourge of white supremacy, it raises significant constitutional concerns and would entrench in Virginia a framework that has been used at the federal level to target minority communities for discriminatory investigation, surveillance, and prosecution — and make it worse by creating a new, overly-broad category of ‘domestic terrorist organizations,’” wrote the group’s executive director Claire G. Gastanaga.

Gastanaga said existing anti-terrorism and racketeering laws in Virginia address criminal conduct, without raising constitutional issues, including First Amendment and due process concerns.

“It’s the violence on which we must focus,” wrote Gastanaga. “That’s especially true given the devastatingly high number of mass acts of violence in this country.”

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