Activists Say Oklahoma Bill Declares 'Open Season' on Protesters

People rush to the aid of a man struck by a vehicle at a Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Los Angeles on May 27, 2020. (Photo: Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Activists Say Oklahoma Bill Declares 'Open Season' on Protesters

"This is an abhorrent use of legislative power that reeks of racial animus and must be stopped," said Janai Nelson of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Racial justice advocates on Wednesday condemned the Oklahoma House of Representatives' approval of a Republican bill shielding motorists who run over protesters, a measure they say ignores the real issues of systemic racism and police violence while further endangering Black lives.

"Could we be reasonable? Could we try to get to the root cause of why people are in the streets in the first place?"
--State Rep. Regina Goodwin

H.B. 1674 (pdf)--passed by a party-line vote of 79-18--would grant civil and criminal immunity to drivers who "unintentionally" kill or injure people while "fleeing from a riot" if they have "reasonable belief" that doing so will protect them from harm.

Additionally, the proposed legislation would punish protesters who block traffic with up to a year behind bars and a $5,000 fine.

Democratic lawmakers blasted the bill as draconian and criticized their GOP colleagues for bringing the measure to a vote after midnight when few people were paying attention. Democrats also said the bill was misguided and ignored the bigger problems of racism, police violence, and inequality that sparked Black Lives Matter and other protests.

The Oklahoman reports state Rep. Regina Goodwin, a Tulsa Democrat, asked if the Legislature cares about "real issues" causing Black people and allies to take to the streets.

"If we were honest with ourselves, stuff didn't just happen over the summer," she said, referring to the 2020 protests over the killings of Black people by police and white supremacists. "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?"

After a Republican colleague mentioned a 2020 incident in which Black Lives Matter protesters on a Tulsa highway were seriously injured when a truck plowed through them, Rep. Monroe Nichols, another Tulsa Democrat, retorted that "maybe the way to prevent something like this from ever happening again is to make reforms on the broader systemic issue."

Nichols, who is Black, said he must now explain to his 12-year-old son that her colleagues "made it so that folks who may advocate for people who look like him can be run over with immunity."

Critics of the bill including civil rights campaigners warned the Oklahoma bill further endangers Black lives. Some pointed to the more than 100 incidents in just over three months last year in which drivers--both civilian and police--struck people at racial justice protests following the Minneapolis police killing of unarmed Black man George Floyd.

Others recalled Heather Heyer--who was killed in August 2017 when a white supremacist ran her over while she protested against the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virgina.

"Oklahoma legislators are effectively declaring open season on protesters by seeking to immunize people who run them over from criminal liability," tweeted Janai Nelson, associate director-counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. "This is an abhorrent use of legislative power that reeks of racial animus and must be stopped."

H.B. 1674 is the latest in a series of Oklahoma bills critics say target activists. State Sen. Kevin Matthews, a Tulsa Democrat, contrasted a bill that would allow people to paint blue lines on streets to show support for police with measures that would outlaw posting personal information about officers. Matthews said the latter bill could criminalize people who document police brutality.

"It is evident this session that the majority caucus is extremely pro-law enforcement without any consideration for those who have been hurt or harmed by law enforcement officers," he told colleagues. "Black lives do matter, and the evidence of or even the spoken actions around Black Lives Matter have been neutralized by this legislature."

The Oklahoma bill is one of many anti-protest measures that have been recently passed or proposed in more than a dozen states. Bills granting immunity to motorists who strike protesters under certain circumstances have been introduced in numerous states.

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