COLUMBUS — Saying they strongly support the right to protest, two Ohio Republican lawmakers responded to incidents around the country in the wake of protests with a bill that would stiffen penalties for rioting, looting and violence toward peace officers in the state.

“We have had conversations with peace officers and business owners around the state and they were like something has to be done,” state Rep. Cindy Abrams, R-Harrison, said at a news conference Tuesday. “Over the summer, we saw peaceful protests and then we saw rioting, vandalism and looting.”

Abrams, a former police officer, said disrespect for law enforcement continues to be a substantial issue across the state.

“The disrespect right now, it is devastating to the uniformed police officers,” Abrams said. “I’m not saying there aren’t a few bad apples across the nation, but there are bad apples in anything you do.”

Protests began across the U.S. in late May following the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis.

In Columbus, protests centered around the downtown area, mostly at Capitol Square, where Abrams said many businesses were boarded Tuesday for precautions following last week’s election. Those protests were met with heavy police presence.

More than 100 businesses were vandalized, along with numerous government buildings. The city of Columbus enacted a curfew, and Gov. Mike DeWine called in the Ohio National Guard to maintain order.

“Many of these businesses are not coming back and these jobs are lost for good, and they are not coming back, and they did nothing wrong,” state Rep. Sara Carruthers, R-Hamilton, said.

Both Abrams and Carruthers, R-Hamilton, pointed out the Ohio Law and Order Act does not impede the right to peacefully protest, but it does go after what they called a handful of agitators that turn peaceful protests into criminal behavior.

“Vandalism, looting and violence are not free speech,” Carruthers said. “When businesses are boarded up as they are now and shut down from the actions of a few, we all lose. This is a common sense bill.”

The proposed legislation would increase the felony grade for rioting, looting and vandalism to private property, and would increase penalties for damaging public property. Also, it would allow a peace officer assaulted during a riot to sue those responsible, including event organizers.

“We are supporting law enforcement and our first responders, and we are holding people accountable for their actions,” Abrams said.

By J.D. Davidson

The Center Square