Republican lawmakers in six states have pushed this year for legal protections for motorists who hit protesters blocking traffic. Fairly or not, they’re facing an intense backlash now that violent images of a car ramming into a crowd protesting a white supremacist rally have been seen around the world.
The lawmakers say their goal has never been to incite violence, but to shield drivers from costly lawsuits for accidents they blame on illegal street protests. Bills in Texas and North Carolina to protect drivers from civil liability if they unintentionally injure or kill protesters remain pending, but their chances of passage appear dim after Saturday’s attack in Charlottesville, Virginia, which killed a woman and injured at least 19 people. The four other bills were voted down or failed without advancing.
The bills are part of a backlash to large, disruptive protests over the last year against police shootings of black men, the Dakota Access pipeline and policies of the Trump administration. Some shut down major freeways, angering motorists and drawing concern from public safety officials. Lawmakers responded with new laws across the country, passing a $200 fine in Tennessee for blocking emergency vehicles, a South Dakota measure that criminalizes highway protests and tougher trespassing laws in North Dakota and Oklahoma.
The driver immunity proposals have been particularly contentious. Critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union, labeled them “hit and kill” bills that undermine free assembly and embolden extremists by suggesting they have a free pass to drive through protesters.
Bill sponsors have been inundated with criticism on social media following the arrest of James A. Fields Jr. for allegedly ramming his Dodge Challenger through a crowd of counter-protesters in Charlottesville. The attack killed 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injured others who had gathered in the streets to oppose white nationalists, who were protesting the removal of a confederate monument. Scores of critics have bluntly told the lawmakers on Twitter and Facebook that they are complicit in Heyer’s death.
Bill supporters have rejected that claim and denounced the Charlottesville attack. They note that the wording of their bills would not protect drivers who deliberately target protesters, and any intentional attackers would still face criminal and civil liability.
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