In a rare, early-morning vote, Republican lawmakers in the Oklahoma House approved legislation to grant immunity to drivers who hit protesters.
On a party-line vote Wednesday, the House passed a bill that grants civil and criminal immunity for drivers who unintentionally injure or kill protesters while “fleeing from a riot.”
The bill came under fire from legislative Democrats who said the Republican majority was looking to lash out at protesters instead of taking steps to address systemic racism and police misconduct that have spurred widespread Black Lives Matter protests.
Rep. John Waldron, D-Tulsa, called the bill draconian and accused legislative Republicans of intentionally bringing the measure up for the vote around 12:30 a.m., after more than 14 hours of voting on legislation, in order to avoid public scrutiny.
Kevin McDugle, R-Broken Arrow, who presented the bill on the House floor, said he supports the rights of Oklahomans to protest peacefully, but riots are unacceptable.
“This bill simply says, ‘please stay to the peaceful protests,’” he said. “Don’t block roads. Don’t impede on the freedoms of others.”
In a heated floor debate, McDugle referenced an incident in Tulsa where a pickup pulling a horse trailer drove through a group of Black Lives Matter protesters demonstrating on a highway. Several protesters were seriously injured, including a man who was paralyzed from the waist down after falling from an overpass.
The driver acted out of fear, McDugle said.
Saying several protesters attacked the pickup in which a man was driving his children, the Tulsa County district attorney did not file charges against the driver.
“Maybe the way to prevent something like this from ever happening again is to make reforms on the broader systemic issue,” Rep. Monroe Nichols said, alluding to criminal justice and police reforms to address systemic racism.
Nichols, D-Tulsa, who is Black, said he dreads having to tell his 12-year-old son that instead of addressing police reform, the Oklahoma House “made it so that folks who may advocate for people who look like him can be run over with immunity.”
Republican legislators repeatedly emphasized they were trying to protect drivers from riots or violent protests. West praised Black Lives Matter protesters in Oklahoma City for largely demonstrating in a series of peaceful protests over the summer.
“A large part of our duty as legislators is to protect our citizens,” he said. “This is something that gives them protection.”
West said the bill is a well thought-out measure, and not a knee-jerk reaction to recent protests.
But House Democrats pointed to larger, more complicated, issues that have driven minorities to protest.
Naming victims of police violence in Oklahoma and across the country, Rep. Regina Goodwin, D-Tulsa, questioned if the Oklahoma Legislature cares about what she called, “the real issues” that led people of color to speak out.
“Something happened over the summer,” she said, referencing racial justice protests that cropped up across the country. “If we were honest with ourselves, stuff didn’t just happen over the summer. Stuff has been happening for centuries. Could we be reasonable? Could we try to get to the root cause of why people are in the streets in the first place?”
HB 1674, which now heads to the state Senate, would allow prosecutors to charge with a misdemeanor protesters who “unlawfully obstruct” streets or highways to a point that it hinders traffic. The legislation also outlines punishments and fines for organizations involved in the planning of a riot.
Source: USA Today – Breaking News