GOP’s ‘Anti-Protest’ Bills
Terry H. Schwadron
April 24, 2021
Try as I might to understand it, I can make no legitimate sense of the bills being passed by Republican legislators in Oklahoma, Iowa and other states granting immunity to drivers whose vehicles strike and injure protesters in public streets.
They seem ham-handed, vindictive attempts to silence racial protest that encourage anti-protester violence.
The bills, part of a wave of anti-protest legislation described by The New York Times, are meant to discourage — no quash — street protests for racial justice by Black Lives Matter and other groups, and, naturally, are being seen either as deterrents by the Right or racist, anti-free speech by the Left.
But the efforts feel as if they are authorizing terrorists to attack crowds on U.S. streets at will.
There were instances among all those nationwide protests last summer after the murder of George Floyd at the hands of now-convicted former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in which cars or trucks did plow into crowds, though no one was arrested. This bill now says those drivers should have immunity from civil suit as well.
Other bills described across states with Republican legislatures would make blocking roadways a crime, deny anyone convicted of unlawful assembly from holding a state job or elected office, or receiving student loans, unemployment or housing assistance. And, just in case anyone missed the partisan point of the protests, would punish cities in some states who “defund the police” by altering law enforcement budgets without specific approval of Republican governors.
Wait. This is the same Republican Party that is up in arms about cancel culture, about Donald Trump kicked from Twitter and Facebook, about protecting individual liberty at the cost of public health measures?
Were this bill in effect in Washington last month, would it have allowed a car to strike the Capitol Police officer who manned the barricade? Were this bill in effect in New York as an Islamist terrorist in 2017 drove into cyclists, would that driver be considered immune from the law?
Isn’t this exactly what happened in a fatal car attack on the crowd in Charlottesville, Va., and exactly what happened as a jihadist attack mowed down pedestrians in Nice?
On top of everything else, did we not take away a national lesson this week from the Chauvin trial that de-escalation is the preferred path for public safety?
Sen. Rob Standridge, a Republican lawmaker in Oklahoma, who wrote the bill, offered this explanation: It was prompted mostly by an incident in Tulsa last summer in which a pickup truck drove through a crowd gathered on a Tulsa interstate while protesting policing in Minneapolis. Several people were injured, including one who was paralyzed from the waist down after falling from an overpass, but the driver, whose family was in the car, was not charged.
“The kids cowered in the back seat because they feared for their lives,” Standridge said. “That’s what this bill is about.” He didn’t mention the injured protesters or explain why the driver had not been charged criminally.
According to The Times, Republicans in 34 states have responded have used the summer protests to propose 81 punitive new anti-protest measures this year governing the right to lawfully assemble. That is more than twice as many proposals as in any other year, according to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, which tracks legislation limiting the right to protest.
Some conflate protests with rioting, as in Florida, where Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has expressed scorn for cities that think about revisiting police budgets and tolerate protesters who disrupt business and traffic, and turning some misdemeanors for looting, for example, into felonies. The Times noted that the Florida law also increases penalties for taking down monuments, including Confederate ones, making the offense punishable by up to 15 years in prison. It makes it easier for anyone who injures a protester, such as by driving into a crowd, to escape civil liability.
According to The Washington Post, which reviewed the protests, more than 96 percent involved no property damage or police injuries. In others, police officers or counter-protesters were cited as instigating violence.
Overall, there already are crimes on the books for unlawful behavior — the argument that Republicans are fond of raising during gun-control debates. The Times talked with law enforcement groups in the targeted states, who noted that they had not asked or sought the legislation.
So, the only conclusion is that this effort reflects something else — a wider desire to forcefully block street protests for social justice altogether. Rather than listen to what the protests are meant to highlight, the reaction is to kill them altogether.
This is not democracy. This is not public safety. This is using the law — and the car — as weapons toward a political end.