Republicans have opened up another front in their war on democracy: outlawing ordinary civil street protest by defining it as a “riot,” and giving a green light to drivers to mow down and kill anyone who disobeys. In recent years, vehicles have become right-wing extremists’ weapon of choice, and a number of states are preparing to give them their blessing to use them.
GOP-controlled legislatures in Florida and Oklahoma, as Alex Pareene reports at The New Republic, each recently passed legislation that not only outlaws broadly defined “riots,” but provides immunity to people who drive their vehicles into a protest crowd. Other Republican legislatures in a number of states are lining up to do the same.
The Florida bill—signed into law by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis—forbids anyone from occupying streets in the course of a protest (which can be any gathering of three or more people), and then gives immunity to drivers who ram their cars into protesting crowds in those streets and injure or kill anyone participating. Anyone who participates in a protest that becomes violent can be charged with a third-degree felony.
The primary target of the Florida legislation is left-wing or Black Lives Matter protesters. Among other features, the wide-ranging bill:
—Declares it illegal to block city streets during a protest: “A person may not willfully obstruct the free, convenient, and normal use of a public street, highway, or road” by, among other things, “impeding traffic” or “standing on or in the street” and “endangering the safe movement of vehicles or pedestrians.”
—Labels protests or three or more people that become violent “mob intimidation”: “It is unlawful for a person, assembled with two or more other persons and acting with a common intent, to use force or threaten to use imminent force, to compel or induce, or attempt to compel or induce, another person to do or refrain from doing any act or to assume, abandon, or maintain a particular viewpoint against his or her will.”
—Forbids doxxing, which it calls “cyberintimidation by publication,” asserting: “It is unlawful for a person to electronically publish another’s personal information with the intent to, or with the intent that a third party will use the information to, incite violence or commit a crime against the person, or threaten to harass the person.”
—Outlaws the destruction of memorials: “Any person who … willfully and maliciously defaces, injures, or otherwise damages by any means a memorial or historic property … commits a felony of the third degree.” A later clause declares anyone pulling down a monument or memorial a second-degree felon.
—Counters any local attempts to defund police departments: It authorizes elected officials to “file an appeal to the Administration Commission if the governing body of a municipality makes a specified reduction to the operating budget of the municipal law enforcement agency” and requires the governor to conduct a budget hearing considering the matter” and then “requiring the commission to approve, amend, or modify the municipality's budget.”
The most disturbing feature of the law is a section granting civil immunity to people who injure or kill people by driving their vehicles into protesting crowds, so long as they claim the protests made them concerned for their own well-being in the moment.
“It is the strongest anti-rioting, pro-law enforcement piece of legislation in the country. There’s just nothing even close,” boasted DeSantis. “We’re not going to let the mob win the day.”
“Today is a sad day for Florida,” commented Florida NAACP president Obi Nweze. “The Governor signed H.B. 1 into law. The bill is racist, discriminatory, unwise, unlawful, and unjust. The Governor put his stamp on this discriminatory law filled with criminalization and civil rights disenfranchisement aimed at Black and Brown Floridians. We won’t sit silent on this issue and we won’t let this stop peaceful protests across the state of Florida.”
Oklahoma’s new law, signed last week by Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt, grants immunity to drivers who injure or kill protesters on public streets, as long as they claim they did so unintentionally and that they feared for their lives or attempted to escape the premises. Like Florida’s law, it makes protesting by obstructing a public street itself a misdemeanor punishable by fines or prison time.
Republicans in five other states introduced similar bills granting some form of immunity to people ramming vehicles into demonstrators: Iowa, Missouri, Nevada, Tennessee, and Washington (though the latter is a Democratic-controlled state where the bill is nearly certain to fail). The Iowa measure passed the state House and awaits Senate approval.
According to its Republican sponsors, the impetus for the Oklahoma bill was an incident at a Black Lives Matter march in Tulsa in which a pickup truck driver drove into the crowd, leaving one person paralyzed from the waist down. The Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office declined to press charges after the driver said he had been frightened by the crowd, and suggested that he was the real victim while the protesters were the instigators.
As Nitshi Pawa observed at Slate: “That is to say that it was apparently already legal to drive into protesters in Oklahoma; these politicians merely helped clarify that fact.”
Democratic legislators in Florida pointed out during debate over the legislation that someone like James Fields, who murdered protester Heather Heyer at the end of a march in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017 by running into a crowd with his car, might have been shielded by their bill. A Republican state senator dismissed the suggestion, claiming that Fields clearly intended to hurt people and thus would not enjoy immunity.
However, as Greg Greene observed at Medium, Fields in fact claimed—much like the Tulsa driver—that he had been frightened and intimidated by the crowd. The specific language in these laws enabling that defense is fairly clear, so Fields may very well have been let off the hook under these laws.
Even before Fields’ act, right-wing pundits had embraced the idea of ramming left-wing marchers with vehicles. As Greene notes, the Daily Caller ran an article and video promoting the idea in early 2017, featuring a highlight reel of vehicle-ramming attacks set to a Ludacris soundtrack. It was removed after Heyer’s murder.
So it was hardly a surprise when vehicular attacks became a common trend during civic protests in the summer of 2020 over police brutality, especially as pro-MAGA extremists began turning out to counterprotest. Ari Weil, a terrorism researcher with the University of Chicago's Chicago Project on Security and Threats, found 72 incidents in 52 different cities involving cars running into protesters.
Most of the attacks, Weil reported, appear mostly to be spontaneous responses, but are occurring in an environment where such attacks are being encouraged on social media. "I want to caution that this isn't just a far-right, neo-Nazi thing, but it's becoming something that's encouraged broadly, and I think that should worry everyone," Weil said.
Among those encouraging it broadly are elected Republican officials. Weil told Pareene that in 2017, he counted six states which considered “hit and kill bill” bills, as the ACLU refers to them, but they all went nowhere. Cops could be openly encouraging it in social media comments, and in cities such as New York and Detroit, participating in it themselves.
“A few years ago,” observes Pareene, “most people would have seen ‘politically motivated vehicle attacks’ as a terrorist tactic pioneered by ISIS. Now American police regularly carry out these kinds of attacks, and Republican policymakers have officially endorsed the practice.”