Republican lawmakers in six states have pushed this year for legal protections for motorists who hit protesters blocking traffic. Fairly or not, they’re facing an intense backlash now that violent images of a car ramming into a crowd protesting a white supremacist rally have been seen around the world.
The lawmakers say their goal has never been to incite violence, but to shield drivers from costly lawsuits for accidents they blame on illegal street protests. Bills in Texas and North Carolina to protect drivers from civil liability if they unintentionally injure or kill protesters remain pending, but their chances of passage appear dim after Saturday’s attack in Charlottesville, Virginia, which killed a woman and injured at least 19 people. The four other bills were voted down or failed without advancing.
The bills are part of a backlash to large, disruptive protests over the last year against police shootings of black men, the Dakota Access pipeline and policies of the Trump administration. Some shut down major freeways, angering motorists and drawing concern from public safety officials. Lawmakers responded with new laws across the country, passing a $200 fine in Tennessee for blocking emergency vehicles, a South Dakota measure that criminalizes highway protests and tougher trespassing laws in North Dakota and Oklahoma.
The driver immunity proposals have been particularly contentious. Critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union, labeled them “hit and kill” bills that undermine free assembly and embolden extremists by suggesting they have a free pass to drive through protesters.
Bill sponsors have been inundated with criticism on social media following the arrest of James A. Fields Jr. for allegedly ramming his Dodge Challenger through a crowd of counter-protesters in Charlottesville. The attack killed 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injured others who had gathered in the streets to oppose white nationalists, who were protesting the removal of a confederate monument. Scores of critics have bluntly told the lawmakers on Twitter and Facebook that they are complicit in Heyer’s death.
Bill supporters have rejected that claim and denounced the Charlottesville attack. They note that the wording of their bills would not protect drivers who deliberately target protesters, and any intentional attackers would still face criminal and civil liability.
“It is intellectually dishonest and a gross mischaracterization to portray North Carolina House Bill 330 as a protection measure for the act of violence that occurred in Charlottesville this past weekend,” that bill’s sponsors, Reps. Justin Burr and Chris Millis, said in a joint statement.
Burr explained the intent in April as the House voted 67-48 to pass the bill: “You shouldn’t run out in front of cars on the interstate or the highway and attempt to illegally protest. If you do, it should be at your risk, not at the risk of the liability of those individuals driving down the road.”
A North Carolina state senator said Monday there are no plans to advance the measure in that chamber.
In Florida, Sen. George Gainer said the intent of his now-failed bill was to protect only those motorists who unintentionally strike protesters blocking traffic. He denounced “the reprehensible actions of the evil person in Virginia.”
Texas Rep. Pat Fallon wrote that he had received “outrageous hate” from critics of the bill he introduced last month, and said the Virginia attack was murder.
The debate over Tennessee’s bill, which would have shielded drivers exercising “due care,” showed how the measures have been divisive.
During a March hearing, Democratic Rep. G.A. Hardaway said he worried the law would allow extremists to deliberately attack protesters and then claim it was accidental. He cited social media posts from Trump supporters that suggested the bill would make it legal to “run down protesters” when the president visited Tennessee.
“It was providing them the type of motivation, inspiration to get out there and be violent,” he said. “Those who seek to harm others, they think this gives them cover.”
“All Lives Splatter,” read one internet meme that showed a car driving over protesters.
The sponsor, Republican Rep. Matthew Hill, said he did not condone such posts, which he dismissed as ignorant or unfunny. He said he simply did not “want someone to lose their livelihood, their home, their savings” after accidentally hitting a protester they didn’t see. A committee rejected his bill.
Critics say it can be hard to know whether a driver striking protesters did so intentionally, citing a January incident at a Nashville protest over Trump’s immigration restrictions.
Vanderbilt University graduate student Peter Capretto, 29, said he and three other members of a protest safety team were wearing neon vests and protecting a crosswalk at an intersection when they were struck and carried 200 feet on the hood of an SUV. He recalled screaming for his life until the driver stopped.
“He turned into us, hit us at a relatively moderate speed and accelerated while we were on the hood,” Capretto said. “It was absolutely intentional.”
The driver and his wife told police they feared for their lives after protesters surrounded their SUV, claiming protesters jumped on the hood as they tried to drive away. No charges were filed, and the driver hasn’t faced legal action.
Capretto, who testified against the Tennessee bill, said the Virginia attack triggered painful memories, and “confirmed for me that Republican legislation about driver immunity is emboldening drivers to attack protesters.”
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