Metropolis

Why Republicans Are Passing Laws Protecting Drivers Who Hit Protesters

Two bikes are seen lying flat near police ticker tape. To the left, masked people hold a stretcher.
Bikes lie on the ground after a car struck multiple Black Lives Matter protesters in New York City on Dec. 11. Timothy A. Clary/AFP Getty Images

Over the past 11 months of anti-racism protests, demonstrators have had to protect themselves: from police, sometimes; from white supremacists, occasionally; and from cars. Since the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, more than 100 incidents of hostile drivers ramming into activists have been documented. These assailants have included police officers, gun-toters, and even, in one instance, a Ku Klux Klan leader. Many, though not all, of these aggressors were charged under local statutes—but now, a growing number of Republican state lawmakers are trying to ensure that, in the future, such vehicular attacks get a pass.

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On Monday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an “anti-riot” bill that allows harsher police crackdowns on demonstrators—an apparent response to the “defund the police” and Black Lives Matter movements. (“This bill actually prevents local governments from defunding law enforcement,” DeSantis said.) A public gathering of three or more people can be classified as a “riot” under the law, and anyone who “willingly” participates in such a gathering can be charged with a third-degree felony. Plus, participants in rallies that turn violent can be also be charged with a third-degree felony even if they had no involvement with the violence. Most jarring of all, the law grants civil immunity to drivers who ram into protesting crowds and even injure or kill participants, if they claim the protests made them concerned for their own well-being in the moment.

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On Wednesday, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed a bill that grants immunity to drivers who unintentionally hurt or kill protesters on public streets, should they claim they feared for their lives or attempted to escape the premises, and makes protesting by obstructing a public street itself a misdemeanor punishable by fines or prison time. The act was initially introduced in response to an incident in May 2020 when a pickup truck rammed into a mass of people in Tulsa protesting Floyd’s killing, injuring three of them, one of whom was paralyzed from the waist down. (The Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office declined to press charges and suggested that the standing protesters were the real instigators and the driver was the victim.) Though Oklahoma’s bill is not nearly as elaborate as Florida’s, it does go further in protecting protester-killing drivers by shielding them from even criminal charges.

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These two laws are only the latest examples of anti-dissent legislation introduced by state-level Republican lawmakers across the country. According to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law’s U.S. Protest Law Tracker, 17 states have enacted a total of 30 anti-protest bills and executive orders prohibiting protests at fossil fuel facilities, expanding the definitions of the words incitement and riot, heightening requisite penalties, and granting state officials further power to crack down on grassroots demonstrations on both public and private property. South Dakota and Tennessee have had laws on the books since 2017 that allow those states to penalize conscientious objectors who obstruct traffic, but neither has gone so far as to protect belligerent drivers. Since 2016, hundreds of state laws cracking down on various forms of dissent have been proposed, and 45 states have tabled these proposals; 68 of these bills are currently pending. This is the largest number of concurrently considered anti-protest laws at any point in American history.

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More and more of these bills have been introduced since 2017, especially since last summer. That includes the subcategory of measures protecting drivers who hit protesters. After the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, legislative proposals in Republican-led states to protect drivers from lawsuits brought by harmed demonstrators proliferated—and, as I noted last year, mass demonstrations against racist police brutality also brought out dozens of counterprotesting drivers who ran over protesters, in a few cases even killing them. In these rallies, often led by Black activists, protesters have taken to streets and highways in symbolic and generally peaceful gestures, inconveniencing those who might otherwise ignore them and sometimes bringing attention to highways whose construction destroyed Black Americans’ neighborhoods. The bills introduced in 2017 all faltered, but the idea has rebounded. Measures have been introduced in Missouri and Nevada, among other states, that would grant civil immunity to drivers who hit permitless protesters if the drivers are exercising “due care.” Prominent critics and legal experts argue that all this will serve to do is throttle free speech rights—and that it could, as Alex Pareene wrote in the New Republic this weekend, create a sort of Second Amendment for cars in order to intimidate and discourage Americans exercising their rights to protest on the streets.

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While debating Florida’s anti-dissent bill the week before it passed, Democratic legislators asked their Republican colleagues whether someone like Heather Heyer’s murderer, who hit her with a car during a counterprotest in Charlottesville, would have been shielded by their bill; a GOP state senator dismissed the question, stating that that driver was clearly attempting to hurt people and thus would not be insulated from legal consequences. Indeed, Heyer’s killer faced hate crime charges and was convicted in Virginia through the kind of process the Florida bill still allows. But that was an extreme, and clear-cut, case: The ambiguity of incitement and riot under Florida’s law could help shield future assailants from some consequences. Whatever the impact, this sends a clear message to would-be protesters about whose side the state’s power structure is on.

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In some ways these laws are also land grabs, marking off the places where civic dissenters don’t belong. Oklahoma is slated to pass laws in addition to the driver-immunity bill that would, according to the Oklahoman, “allow localities to establish ordinances for citizens to paint blue lines on streets as a show of support for law enforcement”—an evident reference to the notorious “thin blue line” flag—and make it illegal to post information about police officers online. The latter measure, as state Democrats noted, could unfairly target “those who take photos or videos of instances of police brutality”—like the many bystanders who’ve recorded such instances on their cellphones in cities across the nation. A Republican state senator also introduced another bill that would “make it a misdemeanor for protesters to block or restrict traffic on public streets or highways.”

This ever-growing morass of anti-dissent legislation is, for now, one legacy of our yearlong consideration of police brutality. More bills protecting drivers who strike demonstrators remain in the works; Iowa is on the verge of passing its own. People, especially activists of color, will keep getting injured or even killed. What will happen if even more states tell drivers they can ram whomever they want?

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