A little under a year ago, near the remnants of an 18th century colonial fort and not far from where ships exported cotton that funded the Confederates in the Civil War, a line of Mobile police officers came face to face with Black Lives Matter activists.
Among the protestors was a young Black woman who smashed the window of a police vehicle with a baseball bat. Other than a few journalists and bystanders, the moment barely registered with the noisy crowd. She fled the scene, according to TV footage from the day.
The woman was later identified as 22- year-old Tia Pugh. She turned herself in and was charged with two misdemeanors, according to local court records.
But days later, Pugh found herself in the crosshairs of federal prosecutors and Mobile’s relatively calm protests suddenly took on national significance.
Pugh was charged with impeding law enforcement during a civil disorder, a felony offense buried inside the Civil Rights Act of 1968. The provision, known unofficially as the Anti-Riot Act, was only used four times between 1970 and 2018, according to an analysis of the law by a law professor at St. Louis University.
The Anti-Riot Act makes it illegal to impede police or firefighters during civil unrest. The provision dates back to the aftermath of race riots that erupted after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968, according to congressional records at the time.
Southern senators who pushed for the law saw it as an opportunity to undermine civil rights by targeting African Americans accused of attacking law enforcement and engaging in other types of civil disobedience.
The case of the Chicago Eight was one of the first and most prominent cases charged under the new law, coming in August 1968, about five months after Congress passed the Civil Rights Act. The arrest of the eight men, which became seven after a mistrial, gave rise to further protests nationwide, adding to those seen after the assassination of King months earlier. The trials and subsequent appeals continued for years.
All the convictions were reversed in late 1972.
Former Attorney General William Barr and President Donald Trump revived the provision, ordering federal prosecutors to aggressively charge those involved in George Floyd protesters in 2020.
Pugh’s attorney, Gordon Armstrong III, argued that his client should not be charged under the law because of what he calls its racist origins.
Ahead of Pugh’s trial, Armstrong III presented the court with official congressional documents dating back to 1968 highlighting racist language and tone lawmakers used while debating the proposed legislation.
“They talked about the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement of that day and time, including Dr. Martin Luther King, in a derogatory way. They called them Negroes and mentioned the Negro movement. At that time, race riots were taking place across the country and opposition to the Vietnam War was big. And Blacks were still regarded as second-class citizens, particularly in the South.”
Armstrong describes the Anti-Riot Act as a compromise to get the Civil Rights Act through Congress.
“It was like, ‘Well, we’ve got to vote for this civil rights act, but you’re going to let us put this amendment in here to keep these people down,’” he added. “It shows where the mindset of these politicians was at that time.”
Defense attorneys in multiple jurisdictions have filed a series of motions questioning the law’s modern relevance and constitutionality in different cases, according to PACER, a federal courts database.
The original sponsor of the amendment was Louisiana Sen. Russell B. Long, an avowed segregationist. In records from early 1968, Long makes multiple references to “negroes” and repeatedly mentions the names of H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael — two prominent Black civil rights activists at the time; both were later charged under the new laws.
“I would like to be able to vote and to tell people that I voted to do something about Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael,” Long said during deliberations on the bill, also calling protesters “rabble rousers” and “treasonous,” according to Congressional records from early 1968.
Another supporter of the 1968 amendment who features prominently in congressional records from that time was Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, another vocal segregationist. He said at the time that to help deal with the civil disobedience that had swept the country in the late 60s, Congress should pass an antiriot bill, saying during debate on the proposal, “to deal with these people like Martin Luther King, Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael, and other people who run across State lines to incite and stir up riots, dissension, and trouble.”
Thurmond once spent 24 hours filibustering a civil rights bill in 1957, still a record for a lone senator.
Despite Armstrong’s argument, Alabama federal judge Terry F. Moorer was unmoved, denying a motion to dismiss the case. Moorer also ruled that the law wasn’t obviously racist and that the motivations of the legislators at that time were irrelevant, according to federal court documents.
In his ruling, Moorer suggested that even if Sen. Long had racist intent in putting forth the legislation, the bill still received a majority vote to pass the U.S. Senate. He wrote: “Let’s just assume that Sen. Long was a flaming racist who did engineer this statute getting through Congress for very nefarious purposes. Sen. Long was one of however many senators who would’ve voted on this?”
Pugh admitted to breaking the window, but pleaded not guilty. After a two-day trial she was found guilty and will be sentenced in August. She will also face state misdemeanor charges in Mobile later this summer, according to court records.
Armstrong said Pugh was unavailable for comment.
Since Pugh became the first person charged under the Anti-Riot Act during the George Floyd protests, federal prosecutors have used it in dozens of other cases across the country.
To date, prosecutors have used the law in cases in Houston; in Boston; in Chicago; in Delaware; in South Carolina; in Rochester, New York; in Erie, Pennsylvania; and in Portland, Oregon, where there are seven cases of protest-related civil disorder charges.
In each instance, defendants have pointed to the racist beginnings of the Anti-Riot Act.