A new Oklahoma law protects drivers who unintentionally injure or kill demonstrators from any liability, while simultaneously subjecting protesters who block roadways to jail time and hefty fines.
“They are targeting groups of protesters who are just wanting to use their freedom of speech, passing bills that will intimidate them in the hopes of keeping people from using their first amendment rights, passing bills that decriminalize the murder of protesters, which is absolutely insane,” said Adriana Laws, founder of the Collegiate Freedom and Justice Coalition.
Because of HB 1674, a driver “who unintentionally causes injury or death” while exercising “due care” will not be criminally or civilly liable if they reasonably believe they’re “fleeing from a riot” where they will be harmed.
Obstruction of a public street, highway or road will now constitute a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in a county jail and fees as high as $5,000. Anyone who commits the offense will be liable for damages.
Legislators passed HB 1674 following historic protests against police brutality and racial injustice last summer, both in Oklahoma and across the country. The mass demonstrations – most of which were peaceful – faced sharp criticism from Republicans, who decried property damage and violence by some protesters.
Meanwhile, cars have become a weapon among those hoping to disrupt demonstrations, or drivers who get flummoxed and enraged. People drove their vehicles into protests more than 100 times last summer, and at least two protesters were fatally struck, according to USA Today.
In 2017, the white supremacist James Fields Jr murdered Heather Heyer by ramming into anti-racism protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“This law is dangerous and meant to discourage Oklahomans from exercising their constitutional right to peaceful protest,” said Lani R Habrock, government affairs director for the state chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
The bill was among a series of reactionary legislative proposals that some fear could hinder Oklahomans’ ability to protest. Another – which criminalizes posting personal information about law enforcement officers online, and which advocates believe could deal a blow to accountability – has also become law.
“Most of it was what we were seeing nationwide, and just a lot of concern that could come to our backyard real quick,” West said.
Don Spencer, president of the Oklahoma 2nd Amendment Association, spoke in a video from February about his desire for legislation like HB 1674. Beyond protecting drivers who run people over, he hoped those who were obstructing traffic would be held liable – “I guess if they’re alive – if there’s anything left of ’em”.
“If you’re unlawfully blocking a roadway for the intent purpose of possibly doing damage, to scare people, to harm people,” he warned, “folks, you could be treaded on with the car tires.”