Critics Decry New Oklahoma Law That Protects Drivers Who ‘unintentionally’ Run Over Or Kill Protesters

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed a bill into law last week that offers legal pro­tec­tions for dri­vers who “unin­ten­tion­al­ly” kill or injure pro­test­ers if they are attempt­ing to “flee the scene.” House Bill 1674, which passed last week thanks to over­whelm­ing Republican sup­port, also makes it a mis­de­meanor offense to obstruct a road­way. The new law was passed in response to Black Lives Matter demon­stra­tions that took place in Oklahoma and much of the coun­try last sum­mer in response to the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. “The 1st Amendment gives us the right to peace­ably assem­ble, not unlaw­ful­ly assem­ble,” GOP state Rep. Kevin West, a spon­sor of the bill, told Yahoo News in an email. “The lan­guage [in H.B. 1674] gives equal pro­tec­tion to law­ful pro­test­ers as well as law-abid­ing cit­i­zens who get caught up in dan­ger­ous, unlaw­ful sit­u­a­tions.” Under the new law, any­one who obstructs a pub­lic road or high­way faces a mis­de­meanor charge pun­ish­able by up to a year in coun­ty jail and/​or a fine rang­ing from $100 to $5,000. Also, any dri­ver who “unin­ten­tion­al­ly” hits a demon­stra­tor with a car is grant­ed civ­il and crim­i­nal lia­bil­i­ty pro­tec­tion for injuries caused, includ­ing death, while “flee­ing from a riot.”

Police officers

Police offi­cers mon­i­tor­ing a crowd of pro­test­ers in Tulsa, Okla., on June 20, 2020. (Brendan Smialowski/​AFP via Getty Images)

The bill’s lan­guage was inspired by an inci­dent last sum­mer in Tulsa in which the dri­ver of a pick­up truck drove through a crowd of peo­ple on Interstate 244 who were protest­ing Floyd’s death. The col­li­sion left sev­er­al peo­ple injured and one per­son par­a­lyzed from the waist down. The dri­ver of the pick­up truck, who had his fam­i­ly with him in the car, how­ev­er, was not charged. “The kids cow­ered in the back seat because they feared for their lives,” Sen. Rob Standridge, a Republican who authored H.B. 1674, told AP. “That’s what this bill is about.” “Hopefully every­thing qui­ets down around the coun­try, and this bill won’t be need­ed for any­body, but if things come to Oklahoma like have been hap­pen­ing, this will pro­tect some folks,” Standridge added in a record­ed video. Stitt and Standridge did not reply to Yahoo News’ request for com­ment. Similar bills are being pushed through Republican-led state­hous­es in oth­er parts of the coun­try. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an immu­ni­ty-grant­i­ng bill into law ear­li­er this month, and a mea­sure in Iowa is work­ing its way through the Legislature.

While pro­po­nents of the bill say H.B. 1674 will pro­tect those trapped by riots or demon­stra­tions, crit­ics believe the bill great­ly threat­ens Oklahomans’ right to peace­ful­ly protest and that it will dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly affect Black peo­ple because it offers vague dis­cre­tion to dri­vers to assess whether a demon­stra­tion con­sti­tutes a threat. For Dr. Tiffany Crutcher, an Oklahoma native whose twin broth­er, Terence, was shot and killed by a Tulsa police offi­cer in September 2016 dur­ing a traf­fic stop, this bill is deeply per­son­al. H.B. 1674 “attacks and silences our right to assem­ble and protest and let our voic­es be heard,” Crutcher, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Terence Crutcher Foundation, told Yahoo News in a video interview.

Protestors

A demon­stra­tion in Tulsa in response to the police shoot­ing of Terence Crutcher. (Sue Ogrocki/​AP/​File)

It means so much to me because my twin broth­er … was killed by a white police offi­cer … and we had to take it to the streets to demand that jus­tice be served,” she said. “Because of our right to march down the streets and our right to assem­ble, we were able to force the dis­trict attor­ney to indict [Officer] Betty Shelby with­in the first week.” Shelby was charged with manslaugh­ter in Terence’s killing but was lat­er acquit­ted. Tiffany Crutcher believes bills like these con­tin­ue to put Black America in a “state of emer­gency.” “This bill was cre­at­ed in retal­i­a­tion for what took place for us shut­ting down high­ways and mak­ing them incon­ve­nient for just a moment [last sum­mer],” she said. For many peo­ple, H.B. 1674 brings to mind the death of Heather Heyer, a white woman who was killed after a man rammed his car into a crowd of coun­ter­pro­test­ers at an Aug. 12, 2017, “Unite the Right” ral­ly in Charlottesville, Va. James Alex Fields Jr. was even­tu­al­ly charged and con­vict­ed of first-degree mur­der, but crit­ics note that if a law sim­i­lar to Oklahoma’s had been in place in Virginia at the time, he might have not faced any consequences.

Andrew Porwancher, a pro­fes­sor of legal his­to­ry at the University of Oklahoma, said he is con­cerned that the new law goes too far. “H.B. 1674 might appear to be a win for con­ser­v­a­tives, but its pro­vi­sions could be employed against right-wing activists in the future,” Porwancher said in an email to Yahoo News. “Your best shot at pre­serv­ing your own free­dom of speech tomor­row is to pro­tect the speech of your oppo­nents today.” In response to the new law, the American Civil Liberties Union issued a state­ment call­ing it an effort to “[tram­ple] the rights and lib­er­ties of Oklahomans in favor of those with the most pow­er and access.” The group believes the leg­is­la­tion is meant to dis­cour­age peo­ple from protest­ing alto­geth­er. “There is no ques­tion that this leg­is­la­tion chills free speech,” Nicole McAfee, direc­tor of pol­i­cy and advo­ca­cy at the ACLU of Oklahoma, told Yahoo News. “It remind­ed me who the Legislature thinks has a right to be afraid.”

A police offi­cer con­fronts pro­test­ers at a demon­stra­tion in Tulsa. (Amanda Voisard for the Washington Post via Getty Images)

McAfee said the Oklahoma Legislature too often cre­ates laws out of iso­lat­ed inci­dents, like the pick­up truck encounter on Interstate 244, with­out con­sid­er­ing the larg­er impli­ca­tions. “We know the pow­er of protest and pub­lic account­abil­i­ty in mov­ing folks to action, and bills like this not only put our democ­ra­cy in a frag­ile place, but laws like these put our insti­tu­tions in a dan­ger­ous place as well,” she said. But pro­po­nents of the law feel it pro­tects every­one involved. Don Spencer, pres­i­dent of the Oklahoma 2nd Amendment Association, has been advo­cat­ing for laws like H.B. 1674 since February. “If you’re unlaw­ful­ly block­ing a road­way for the intend­ed pur­pose of pos­si­bly doing dam­age, to scare peo­ple, to harm peo­ple,” Spencer warned in a record­ed video ear­li­er this year, “you could be trod­den on with the car tires.” “There are mul­ti­ple ways to protest law­ful­ly and have your voic­es heard, but attack­ing motorists who have noth­ing to do with the protest or what is being protest­ed is not some­thing that should be allowed,” West, the state rep­re­sen­ta­tive, said. H.B. 1674 will take effect on Nov. 1. Until then, the ACLU and oth­er grass­roots orga­ni­za­tions, like the Terence Crutcher Foundation, are try­ing to fig­ure out their next course of action. For Kathryn Schumaker, a pro­fes­sor affil­i­at­ed with the University of Oklahoma’s Institute for the American Constitutional Heritage, the new law takes the state back to a shame­ful era in its his­to­ry and ignores the issues at the cen­ter of the protests. “Civil rights pro­test­ers were his­tor­i­cal­ly described as ‘out­side agi­ta­tors’ who only want­ed to stir up trou­ble,” she told Yahoo News. “In my view, this law seeks to dis­tract from the mes­sage that pro­test­ers are try­ing to communicate.”

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