By now most of us are aware of the horrible terrorist attack in Charlottesville, Virginia over last weekend. Nazis descended on the town, Tiki torches in hand, to protest the long-overdue removal of a statue of the racist traitor Robert E. Lee.
In a less than shocking turn of events, the Nazis turned violent. Several counterprotesters were assaulted, culminating in the horrific vehicular attack which killed Heather Heyer and injured many more.
Vehicle attacks such as this have been used throughout the world. They are easy to carry out and require nothing more than access to a car, the ability to drive, and hate. However, Saturday was the first time terrorists have used this tactic in the U.S..
This act of terrorism also brings to light a disturbing trend in state legislation. So-called “hit-and-kill” bills have been proposed in at least six states, which would provide legal defense for drivers who injure or kill protesters in the street with their cars.
In North Carolina, HB 330 was proposed in response to protests which blocked traffic following the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott. It states that drivers who hit pedestrians blocking the road could not be sued for injury so long as they “exercise due care.” It passed the House 67-48.
In North Dakota, following the events at Standing Rock, HB 1203 was proposed and would have had similar effects. It failed 41-50. In Rhode Island, there was HB 5690, which was effectively killed in committee. Again, motorists were protected as long as they were “exercising due care.” Tennessee had SB 944. Florida had SB 1096. In Texas, they have HB 250. It is also interesting to note that the proposed legislation in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Rhode Island are almost word-for-word copies of each other.
Legislators from many other states are attempting to criminalize protests which happen in the street, even if not going so far as to allow drivers to run people over. A proposed bill in Indiana originally would have allowed police to clear protestors from roads using “any means necessary.” In a triumph of obliviousness, one Minnesota State Representative stated that “Rosa Parks sat in the front of the bus. She didn’t get out and lay down in front of the bus.”
In Washington and North Carolina, hit-and-kill bills would have created a new crime called “economic terrorism” for those who blocked roadways. North Dakota Republican Keith Kempenich continued this line of reasoning, saying “there’s a line between protesting and terrorism, and what we’re dealing with was terrorism.”
In just the past year, nearly 20 states have passed or proposed some form of anti-protest legislation in response to protests from Black Lives Matter and at Standing Rock. Put forth by Republicans, these are not just meant to stifle protest, but to specifically hurt the ability of minorities to protest.
This is not the first time we’ve seen a wave of this sort of bill. Similar anti-protest legislation was passed in the South during the Civil Rights movement in response to sit-ins and boycotts.
Why These Bills Are Bad Policy
This sort of legislation is problematic for many reasons. These proposed hit-and-kill bills would continue the criminalization of minorities, and the “hit and kill” legislation sends the signal that minorities can be killed simply for inconveniencing white people.
[tweet_box design=”default” float=”none”]“Hit-and-kill” bills send signal that minorities can be killed simply for inconveniencing whites.[/tweet_box]
There are also legal issues with this legislation. The people’s First Amendment right to peaceably assembly is put into serious jeopardy when a car can legally come barreling into you. In addition, proving whether someone “accidentally” ran over a protester is difficult and could lead to many situations where protestors are targeted, only to have the driver argue that they “exercised due care.” In this, they resemble “stand your ground” laws, which place much of the burden of proof on the victim.
Still another issue is the loss of public space. The concession of roads to cars is a relatively new idea. And while Rep. Kempenich of North Dakota argued that people have a right to drive, others would argue that driving is a privilege. Protesting, on the other hand, is a right. And when the privilege of drivers is placed before the rights of protesters, our society needs to re-evaluate our priorities.
The terrorist attack in Charlottesville was tragic, and the Nazis involved should all be held accountable. These American terrorists may have gotten the idea to weaponize cars from terrorists overseas, but—through the continued assault on minority protestors, calling them “economic terrorists,” criminalizing assembly, and offering legal protection for those who may attack them with vehicles—they are getting their support from Republican lawmakers right here in the U.S.