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License to kill: Republican bills grant immunity to drivers who kill protesters

A few key rights are at the core of democracy. The first and arguably most important of these is the right to vote in free and fair elections. This establishes the principle that those who are in power can be peacefully replaced once they lose the support of voters.

We call this the consent of the governed. It differs from past justifications for holding political power, such as a monarch’s claim to the divine right to govern. Kings claim that their legitimacy comes from God and birthright; the legitimacy of a democratically-elected government comes from the people.

So when voting rights come under assault – as they have in recent years with everything from extreme gerrymandering to Georgia’s new voter suppression law that makes it illegal to give water to voters waiting in hours-long lines – the very legitimacy of government is at stake.

Other key democratic rights include the right to peacefully assemble and organize, as well as free speech and the free press. All of these rights are now under attack as Republican lawmakers concoct schemes to muscle political power without the consent of the governed.

As the New York Times reports:

Republican legislators in Oklahoma and Iowa have passed bills granting immunity to drivers whose vehicles strike and injure protesters in public streets.

A Republican proposal in Indiana would bar anyone convicted of unlawful assembly from holding state employment, including elected office. A Minnesota bill would prohibit those convicted of unlawful protesting from receiving student loans, unemployment benefits or housing assistance.

And in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed sweeping legislation this week that toughened existing laws governing public disorder and created a harsh new level of infractions — a bill he’s called “the strongest anti-looting, anti-rioting, pro-law-enforcement piece of legislation in the country.”

The measures are part of a wave of new anti-protest legislation, sponsored and supported by Republicans, in the 11 months since Black Lives Matter protests swept the country following the death of George Floyd.

We’ve previously covered Florida’s HB1, which targets critical First Amendment rights. It’s clearly an unconstitutional power grab that pushes the United States away from democracy and toward authoritarian minority-party rule where the majority of Americans are forcefully silenced.

Why do these bills matter?

Black Lives Matter and other civil rights protesters were the target of violence throughout 2020. There were numerous instances where drivers used their vehicles to ram through protesters. Some of those drivers faced criminal charges, but Oklahoma’s new law would instead provide belligerent drivers with a shield.

This contrasts sharply with how Oklahoma is treating protesters. The state just made it a misdemeanor punishable with up to a year in prison for blocking a public road – a tactic that has been used during peaceful protests dating back at least to the civil rights movement.

To be clear, the law does not provide blanket immunity. It protects drivers who are trying to flee a “riot.” It’s a law in search of a problem that does not exist since no reasonable prosecutor would charge a driver who was in imminent danger.

But as Florida and other states targeting peaceful protesters have shown, the definition of “riot” is loose. What they really mean is “protest.”


Florida anti-protest bill targets 1st Amendment

As a multitude of Republican-led states move to restrict the right to vote, Florida is going beyond voter suppression and targeting the 1st Amendment.

HB1 – which its authors are dubbing an “anti-riot” bill – has the potential to criminalize peaceful protests. According to Micah Kubic, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida (via The Hill):

How easy will it be to stifle political protest in Florida if this new law passes? This easy: Under the new law, if a thousand people are marching peacefully to protest the current leadership, all it will take is for a handful of people to decide to throw a brick through a shop window and the entire crowd will be subject to arrest, a felony conviction and a hefty fine if law enforcement deems the peaceful protest “a riot.” That brick thrower could be an infiltrator acting to deliberately derail a perfectly legal demonstration.

And to make sure that peaceful protesters can’t continue demanding change, they will be denied bail until they see a judge. That’s right. You don’t have to commit a crime yourself or engage in any disorderly and violent conduct; you just need to be exercising your constitutional right to peaceful protest while someone else — with no connection to you — is engaging in such conduct.

Will police and local elected leaders shut down a protest as quickly as that? There’s a good chance they will, and here’s why. [Governor] DeSantis’ bill states that if they don’t, the city itself can be held liable for any amount of personal injury or property damage. This is a radical change in the law, which currently protects municipalities from such sweeping liability, and it will drive local officials to over-militarize their law enforcement response to peaceful protests in an attempt to avoid costly civil litigation.

But how about if no one throws a brick through a window? How about if people with different political positions just yell at each other on the street? No problem, the DeSantis law takes care of that too. The proposed law: “Creates the crime of mob intimidation, prohibiting a mob from forcefully compelling or attempting to compel another person to do any act or to assume or abandon a particular viewpoint.”

Florida is one of at least 11 states where similar legislation has been introduced that would greatly restrict the right to assemble and protest in the wake of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests.

Image Credit: Mike Shaheen, Flickr