Black people are paranoid, because being black in America can feel like having a bull’s-eye on your back. That, and Tuskegee, COINTELPRO, segregation, gentrification, piss-poor education, mass incarceration—all of the “shuns.”
And so when CNN reported that no fewer than six states—North Dakota, North Carolina, Florida, Tennessee, Texas and Rhode Island—have tried to enact protections for drivers who run over protesters, many with “nearly identical” language, even those of us who know what time it is were taken aback by the actions of what my parents used to call “the man.”
Purportedly because demonstrations inconvenience real Americans with the reality of black people dying—or, in the case of North Dakota and the Dakota Access Pipeline, big businesses from destroying sacred grounds—these bills would offer protections for drivers who cause injury or death to protesters.
Many of the bills were introduced after specific demonstrations or actions; many also contain language saying that the driver’s liability hinges on whether the protesters have a permit for such demonstrations.
Here’s where they now stand:
Senate Bill 1096 was introduced in the Florida Senate in February, and a similar bill, House Bill 1419, was introduced in the Florida House in March. The language of the legislation notes that the driver must “exercise due care,” but if he or she maims or kills someone, the burden of proof lies with the injured person, not the driver, to prove that the driver’s actions were intentional. Both bills died in subcommittees.
In North Carolina, H.B. 330 excuses drivers from liability if they injure a protester who is blocking traffic. The bill was introduced in March after thousands took to the streets over the police killing of Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, N.C. The bill actually passed the House and is now in subcommittee before it goes to the state Senate.
North Dakota’s H.B. 1203 was introduced in February in response to Dakota Access Pipeline protests. According to its provisions, a driver who caused injury or death to someone blocking a roadway while “exercising reasonable care” would not be held liable for damages. The bill did not pass the House.
In Rhode Island, H.B. 5690, introduced in March, protected drivers who are “exercising due care” and who injure a protester blocking the road. If the driver “purposefully” injures a protester, then he or she can be held liable, but you know that is dependent on the driver’s word (and if that’s anything like the police’s word, you know where this is going). The bill now is “under further study,” as recommended by the House Judiciary Committee.
In Tennessee, like Florida, there were two bills introduced—one in the House and one in the Senate. S.B. 944 and H.B. 668 would protect drivers from being held liable if they injure a protester who is blocking traffic in a public roadway. Again, the driver would face charges only if he or she hits the person “purposefully.” The House bill failed in committee; the Senate one is currently awaiting the approval of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Texas introduced H.B. 250 last month. As in Florida, under this bill, drivers cannot be held liable if they were “exercising due care” at the time they injured a person if that person was participating in a protest. The bill was referred to the House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee in July but seems to have ended there.
It goes without saying that in light of the heinous death of Heather Heyer—who was killed in Charlottesville, Va., by a driver who drove through a protest and, as CNN also reports, may have done so at the urging of right-wing news outlets (which later deleted the posts)—these bills are particularly dangerous. They are indicative of a state that will excuse bodily harm against those who wish to exercise the rights of free speech and peaceable assembly.
Although none have so far been passed into law, it is legislation such as this that underscores the need to be vigilant about what is happening in increasingly Republican-led state legislatures and assemblies across the country. It behooves us to fight these perilous bills vigorously, or to run for office to have a seat at these tables.
Read more at CNN.