In early 2017, in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, Standing Rock, and widespread anti-Trump rallies, Republicans introduced over 40 anti-protest bills in 29 states – most in the name of public security.
Eight of the bills became law. Among them were bills that restricted certain types of protest (e.g. wearing masks), increased penalties on protesters, or gave elected officials more powers to block protests. Lawmakers have slowly been criminalizing dissent for years. These bills are hastening the process in Oklahoma, Tennessee, North Carolina and the Dakotas.
Fortunately, many bills were defeated, but these too showed a disturbing trend. Beginning in North Dakota as a response to the water protectors of Standing Rock, seven bills indemnified motorists from civil and criminal liability if they struck a protester with their vehicle.
THE CHARLOTTESVILLE CRISIS
Most of the bills were in committee on August 12, 2017, when a 20 year-old Kentucky man, James Fields Jr., drove his grey 2010 Dodge Challenger into an anti-racism protest countering the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Fields Jr. injured 35 people and killed one: Heather Heyer, a 32 year-old paralegal and anti-racism protester, who died of blunt-force trauma to the chest. If Virginia had a law like those proposed in seven other states, Fields Jr. would have gone home an innocent man.
Any elected official with a conscience would have immediately understood the real life consequences of these bills.
DRIVER IMMUNITY IN KENTUCKY
But not Kentucky Representative C. Wesley Morgan, a liquor store-owner and proud author of the first driver immunity bill since Heather Heyer was murdered.
Morgan’s bill does some good (banning guns at protests) and a whole lot of bad (increasing penalties for street protests). Well, read it for yourself:
“A motor vehicle operator may not be held criminally or civilly liable for causing injury or death to a person who is obstructing or interfering with the regular flow of traffic on a public street, road, or highway during a public protest, demonstration, or march for which a permit has not been granted, unless the infliction of the injury or death was intentional.”
Yes, you just read a draft law that grants one person permission to kill another.
Read out of context, the wording of Morgan’s bill would seem strange. After all, it’s not as if Kentuckians regularly face armed gangs taking over their highways. But in the context of Charlottesville and a growing contempt for the act of public protest, the message is chillingly clear: it's okay to hit protesters with your car.
Even in situations where motorists and protesters are contesting road space, our basic humanity tells us it is wrong to turn a car into a weapon against another human being, let alone someone protesting an injustice.
Not Morgan, who said, “Who is in the wrong? Who is the criminal? Is it the person who is running into the middle of Interstate 40 who needs to be protected or is it the person who is driving the car and someone just happens to come into their lane of traffic?"
That such power is given to drivers in a bill titled "an act relating to public protests", we reach a grim conclusion: this bill is written with pure contempt for the first amendment freedom of assembly and those who exercise it. Mr. Morgan and any representatives who vote for House Bill 53 are so afraid of our legal right to pursue fairness and justice, they are willing to endorse an execution.
What you can do
The people of Kentucky can make an example of HB 53 and say “no” to driver immunity bills. It’s a tragedy that we are forced to say it, especially to someone who claims to serve the public good: “No, it’s not okay to hit protesters with your car.”
Join the Article 20 Network by contacting Representative C. Wesley Morgan and ask him to withdraw HB 53. He can be reached at 502-564-8100 Ext. 607, by email at Wesley.Morgan@lrc.ky.gov, or on Twitter as @WesleyMorganKY.
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