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Civil Immunity Bills From Republicans Encourage Violence Against Anti-Racist Protesters

A number of state legislatures have considered bills that shield drivers from liability if they run over protesters, who are “obstructing” traffic.

These anti-protest bills from Republican lawmakers reflect a political climate in which far-right activists increasingly find it permissible to mow down Black Lives Matter protesters and other anti-racist demonstrators.

James Fields, a 20 year-old neo-Nazi, drove a Dodge Charger at high speed into the back of a vehicle and through a crowd of people opposing white supremacists in Charlottesville. Fields very quickly threw the car into reverse and injured more people as he left scene. Bodies flew into the air, and Heather Heyer, a bankruptcy attorney, was killed.

He was charged with second degree murder in addition to “three counts of malicious wounding and failing to stop at an accident that resulted in a death.” He was denied bond.

Counter-protesters, who witnessed the act, call it terrorism. Video makes it clear Fields deliberately targeted demonstrators.

Proposed bills have not excused conduct intended to target protesters deliberately, however, lawmakers like Republican State Representative Keith Kempenich of North Dakota find the legislation to be a necessary response to protests that cross the line and become “terrorism.”

Kempenich specifically introduced the bill to curtail demonstrations by indigenous activists and opponents of the Dakota Access pipeline. He said when protesters are on roadways and challenge motorists, “that’s an intentional act of intimidation—the definition of terrorism.”

Dallas Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network argued the proposed bill effectively allowed “people to potentially murder another human being simply because they’re standing in a public roadway with a sign.”

“Those in power are being challenged — whether it’s Black Lives Matter, Native resistance, the Fight for 15, or women’s rights,” Goldtooth contended. “That challenge causes a lot of fear.”

Although the bill was not passed, the motivation behind the bill was similar to the motivation of many of the white supremacist and militia groups that marched in Charlottesville. They want those standing up for justice, especially people of color, to go away.

In Florida, legislators sought to protect a “motor vehicle operator who unintentionally causes injury or death to a person who obstructs or interferes with the regular flow of vehicular traffic.”

Republican State Senator Bill Ketron pushed a bill to give drivers “civil immunity” if they injure a protester “blocking traffic in a public right-of-way if the driver was exercising due care.” It failed.

The state legislature in North Carolina House passed a bill to grant a person “driving an automobile while exercising due care” immunity from “civil liability for any injury to another if the injured person was participating in a protest or demonstration.”

In April, North Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Goodwin described the legislation as “shockingly horrible and dangerous.”

“One of the cornerstones of American democracy is the right to peacefully assemble and demonstrate, but with this bill North Carolina Republicans are giving motorists a free pass to run over protestors without any fear of civil liability,” Goodwin said in a news release. “This legislation is antithetical to our values and risks causing bodily harm to peaceful protestors.”

It risks turning protesters into people, whose lives are less important than the lives of drivers inconvenienced by their presence, and it may lead drivers to believe they can fight back because they can claim they were not liable in a court of law.

As Lee Rowland, senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, stated, “Every city, town and county already has ordinances to deal with obstruction.”

“These bills may be dressed up as bills related to obstruction or insurance or public safety, but make no mistake about it, these bills are about one thing and one thing only: silencing dissent,” according to Rowland.

Bills immunizing drivers from liability if they hit protesters are part of a raft of anti-protesting legislation that Republicans have advanced in 2017. Some bills target protesters with escalated fines for civil disobedience actions, others encourage more drastic responses from law enforcement when met with protests on highways.

The country has previously endured similar legislative backlashes. Stanford sociology professor Douglas McAdam reminded the Washington Post that southern legislatures responded to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, as well as the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, with “dozens and dozens of new bills outlawing civil rights groups, limiting the rights of assembly, etc. all in an effort to make civil rights organizing more difficult.”

Republicans would like anti-racist protesters to feel discouraged from taking action. They preach public safety, but when white supremacists march with torches, weapons, and make threats while marching, this kind of action does not spur a round of introduced legislation targeting their incitement.

The effect is that far-right activists may believe they are justified in vigilante action against protesters because they are not supposed to be present on roadways.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."