In the wake of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, Republican lawmakers are advancing a a number of new anti-protest measures at the state level — including multiple bills that specifically make it easier for drivers to run down protesters.
The most recent example of such a law came Wednesday, when Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed a new law that effectively allows drivers to hit people with a car in a specific set of circumstances.
Under the new law, an Oklahoma driver will no longer be liable for striking — or even killing — a person if the driver is “fleeing from a riot ... under a reasonable belief that fleeing was necessary to protect the motor vehicle operator from serious injury or death.”
The measure also creates new penalties for protesters who obstruct streets or vehicle traffic, including hefty fines of up to $5,000 and as much as a year in jail.
Critics argue that the law will allow people to specifically target public protesters, with little ramification, but Republicans have promoted similar measures in recent years alongside the rise of the Movement for Black Lives in recent years, and such laws have received renewed conservative support after last summer’s protest movement.
At its peak in June 2020, Black Lives Matter protests may have comprised the single largest protest movement in US history, according to the New York Times, with as many as 26 million people nationwide demonstrating in support of racial justice and police reform following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Those protests were overwhelmingly peaceful, according to the Washington Post, and almost 98 percent resulted in no injuries to “participants, bystanders or police.” However, many Republican lawmakers have pushed a draconian legislative response anyway — even as incidents of drivers running down protesters have increased nationwide.
In addition to the Oklahoma measure, Republicans in Iowa’s House passed a bill earlier this month that would carve out similar protections from civil liability for drivers who hit protesters with a car, and on Monday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a broad anti-protest measure into law that does the same.
These recent measures build upon laws proposed in 2017 — the same year that Heather Heyer, an anti-racist protester, was killed by a white supremacist driver during protests in Charlottesville, Virginia. That driver purposefully sped into a crowd of people; the anti-protest laws passed recently offer different levels of protection depending on a driver’s motivations.
As Vice’s Tess Owen explains, the new Florida law “creates civil immunity for people who drive into crowds of protesters, meaning they won’t be sued for damages if people get hurt or killed if they claim self-defense.”
The Iowa bill would also grant civil immunity to drivers who hit protesters blocking traffic, so long as the driver was not engaging in “reckless or willful misconduct.”
But only the Oklahoma law creates both criminal and civil immunity for drivers who hit protesters with their cars while “fleeing.”
Laws like the one in Oklahoma are a far-right dream
If the recent spate of anti-protest measures in Florida, Iowa, and Oklahoma is disturbing on its face, however, context does little to make it better. There is a specific history in the US of the far right using cars as weapons, and it’s not hard to see how bills like the one that is now law in Oklahoma might only make things worse.
The most notable example is from August 2017: Heyer, 32, was struck and killed and at least 19 others were injured when neo-Nazi James Alex Fields Jr. rammed a crowd of counterprotesters in Charlottesville. Fields has since been sentenced to life in prison.
But it’s more than that single incident. According to Ari Weil, the deputy research director for the Chicago Project on Security and Threats, there were at least 72 incidents of cars driving into protesters over a relatively short span in 2020, from May 27 through July 7.
Examples aren’t hard to find. There’s even a Wikipedia page specifically dedicated to “vehicle-ramming incidents during George Floyd protests.” And as Weil explained in an interview with Vox’s Alex Ward last year, “there’s an online environment that for years has been celebrating and encouraging these types of horrendous attacks.”
“What’s particularly worrisome is where those memes spread,” Weil told Vox. “I know of at least four cases where law enforcement officers were sharing these in Facebook groups. [Fields] shared these memes twice in two months before his attack, and other planners of the Unite the Right rally shared these, too.”
According to Weil, the sort of law now on the books in Oklahoma isn’t new, either. When he spoke to Vox in June, Weil said that “at least six states had legislators who tried to pass bills that would protect drivers from civil suits if they hit protesters. Luckily, none of those passed.”
Now, several of them have — and Republicans in Alabama, Arizona, Kentucky, and elsewhere are also pushing bills that would limit protests in other ways.
Even more concerning, it’s not always just random people driving through protests. In several cases, police have also used their cars as weapons against protesters. In Detroit last June, an officer drove his police SUV through a crowd, sending protesters flying; two New York police officers did likewise at a Black Lives Matter protest in May 2020.
Indeed, some of these bills package protection for drivers alongside enhanced authority for law enforcement. The Iowa law, for example, eliminates liability for drivers who hit protesters, while expanding qualified immunity and increasing benefits for police officers, according to the Des Moines Register.
The Republican Party is doing its best to criminalize protest
Though bills that would protect drivers who run over protesters are especially alarming, they’re by no means the only changes that Republicans are pushing in response to Black Lives Matter protests — protests which continued this month following the police killings of Adam Toledo in Chicago, Daunte Wright in Minnesota, and Ma’Khia Bryant in Columbus, Ohio.
In particular, the Florida bill signed this month by DeSantis is a sprawling measure that creates new criminal penalties for protesting, among other provisions. And while it purports to address “rioting” — DeSantis has called it “the strongest anti-rioting, pro-law enforcement piece of legislation in the country” — the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida warned last week that the bill effectively “criminalizes peaceful protest” in Florida.
“Ask yourself this,” ACLU of Florida executive director Micah Kubic said in a statement. “What problem are Gov. DeSantis and certain members of the Florida legislature trying to solve? To be clear — the goal of this law is to silence dissent and create fear among Floridians who want to take to the streets to march for justice.”
During his time in office, former President Donald Trump expressed support for such aggressive measures. As protests erupted after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor last summer, Trump called on governors to quash demonstrations, and praised the National Guard for “cut[ting] through” demonstrations “like butter” in Minneapolis.
Anti-protest bills proliferated around the country during Trump’s tenure in office — and have continued to gain support in the early months of President Joe Biden’s administration as Republican lawmakers at the state level lean even harder into a Trump-style “law and order” message. According to a tracker from the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, at least 30 measures restricting the right to peaceful assembly have been enacted since November 2016, while 68 more are currently pending. All told, at least 220 bills that would curb the right to protest have been introduced in 45 states since November 2016.
And in 2021 alone, International Center for Not-for-Profit Law senior legal adviser Elly Page told the New York Times last week, 81 anti-protest measures have been introduced in 34 states.
One such bill, in Kentucky, would make it a misdemeanor punishable by jail time to insult or taunt a police officer and make resisting arrest during a riot a felony offense. Both the Kentucky and Florida bills would also make it harder for protesters to post bail if arrested in certain circumstances.
Another measure, in Minnesota, would make anyone convicted of a crime at a protest “ineligible for student loans and many other forms of state financial aid,” including food stamps and unemployment, according to the Minnesota Daily.
Not all of those bills have a realistic chance of passing — Minnesota and Kentucky, for example, both have Democratic governors, who would likely veto any such measures that reached their desks — but they’re a clear indication of the broader mood of the Republican Party. Never mind that most Black Lives Matter protests have been peaceful, and never mind that George Floyd was murdered in plain sight, on video, by a police officer — to Republicans, it’s the protests that have to be stopped.