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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.”
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.
“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.”
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 intent purpose of possibly doing damage, to scare people, to harm people,” Spencer warned in a recorded video earlier this year, “you could be treaded 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.”
Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Alan Chin/Xinhua via Getty Images (2)
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