The Georgia Senate backed a measure Wednesday that broadly rewrites the state’s domestic terrorism law, giving the state attorney general more power to prosecute alleged terrorists and creating a separate Homeland Security agency.
Senate Bill 1 would also define someone like Dylann Roof, a white man who in 2015 shot down nine African-American worshipers in a Charleston, S.C., church, a domestic terrorist in Georgia. State law currently only applies that label if someone has killed 10 or more people.
"This is intended to keep our state safe," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, the bill's sponsor.
Among other changes, SB 1 formalizes how local and state authorities share information about suspicious activity. The idea, Cowsert said, was to stop an attack before it happened, using the newly created Homeland Security Department as the center of that activity. It gives the state attorney general power to oversee multi-jurisdictional investigations, while also giving local district attorneys control over local inquiries.
It also for the first time defines “critical infrastructure” in Georgia related to acts of domestic terrorism, including attacks against the power grid, water supply sources, public transit and religious worship activities. Many of the new definitions align with federal law.
The bill passed on a 42-12 vote. All "no" votes were from Democrats, although the party split on the vote after two of them – state Sen. Lester Jackson, D-Savannah, and state Sen. Harold Jones II, D- Augusta – worked with Cowsert across party lines to amend the bill on the floor.
The amendments added stricter definitions to the bill and included wording saying it shall not apply to constitutionally protected speech or lawful protests.
But some Democrats said they still feared the bill's effect and whether, according to state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, it could be used to target certain protest movements such as Black Lives Matter.
But Jackson said no. “This amendment is the right to organize without being tagged a domestic terrorist,” he said. “This amendment isn’t about Black Lives Matter. This amendment is about all lives. All lives have a right to justice in Georgia.”
Cowsert said he supported the amendments because the bill was never intended to subvert or attack constitutional rights, including the right to protest.
Passage sends SB 1 to the state House for consideration.