UPDATE 8/24/17: On Wednesday evening, August 23, a motorist drove his car into a group holding a vigil for a trans woman who had been killed by police earlier in the week. The protesters had taken to the streets and blocked an intersection, the impatient driver rammed into the group, causing minor injuries. He was arrested away from the scene and charged with felony fleeing. Details in the River Front Times.
Since January of this year, an anti-protest frenzy has engulfed state legislatures across the country with one lawmaker after another proposing legislation designed to intimidate those who dare exercise their right to assemble. Most of these bills have been pushed back by popular outrage.
These legislative attempts to thwart free assembly have taken a number of forms, but one of the most odious and notorious has been bills that would remove criminal and civil liability from drivers who kill and maim protesters “accidentally.”
The grotesque nature of these bills, and the fact that they are in essence a state sanctioning of violence against protesters, means that from their very first proposal they garnered media attention and widespread outrage. Last weekend Heather Heyers was murdered while protesting racism when a white supremacist ran over her with a car. Nineteen other individuals, also protesting against racism, were injured as a result of the white supremacist attack. As a result, these vile bills are once again the subject of heightened media scrutiny.
Those who proposed these laws are under fire. While at least one of these bills is no longer being pushed in light of Charlottesville, it’s chief sponsor is nonetheless claiming it is “ intellectually dishonest and a gross mischaracterization to portray North Carolina House Bill 330 as a protection measure for the act of violence that occurred in Charlottesville this past weekend.” He’s arguing that his bill was only meant to protect those who unintentionally hit demonstrators.
Of course, not a single one of these bills come in response to innocent drivers accidentally striking demonstrators. They are not merely solutions to a non-existent problem, they are clearly designed to convey a contempt for protesters. After all, why else would you single out drivers who unintentionally strike protesters for special immunity, while still leaving drivers who strike other pedestrians, intentionally or unintentionally, subject to potential liability?
A contempt for dissent manifested in a stated desire to run over and kill protesters is not a new phenomenon. In 1968, George Wallace, of “segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” infamy,” boasted “If any demonstrator ever lays down in front of my car, it’ll be the last car he’ll ever lay down in front of.” An article from Slate documented the shockingly high number of law enforcement officers who have gotten in trouble for publicly expressing a desire to run over protesters (Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas endorsed a bill removing liability for running over protesters). An entire website exists just to document “social media threats and aspirations to kill or maim Black Lives Matter protestors with vehicles.” A search for the phrases “no one cares about your protest” or “All Lives Splatter” reveals disgusting memes depicting cars running over protesters. There are even window decals available for you to place on your automobile, though many websites appear to have removed them.
These calvier celebrations of the murder of a human being are shocking, but their targets are sadly revealing. There are certainly those who hate dissent so much that wish death upon those who engage in democracy. The first of these bills, however, was in direct response to the protests at Standing Rock. “All Lives Splatter,” like much of the other bills, is a clear attack on Black Lives Matter protests.
Both Standing Rock and Black Lives Matter involved communities who have been subject to racisms and dehumanization standing up for their most basic of human rights. For individuals to respond these demands that we recognize their basic humanity with gleeful wishes for violent death illustrates why they are necessary in the first place.
Lawmakers who push bills removing liability for “accidentally” running over political protesters do so with a wink and a nudge. Responding to a nonexistent problem, these bills are about communicating a murderous disdain for political protests. While given the serious nature of the charges against Heather Heyer’s murderer, it is unlikely that bill protecting those who unintentionally run over protesters would have offered him much protection. It is also impossible to deny what message singling out those who injure or kill protesters for special protections sends. These bills should never have been proposed in the first place, but in light of the shocking murder of Heather Heyer it is urgent that they be repudiated and shelved for good.