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BLM protesters. Photo: Daniel Leal-Olivas/Getty Images
BLM protesters. Photo: Daniel Leal-Olivas/Getty Images

The Oklahoma House of Representatives introduces a bill that would grant immunity to drivers that hit protesters

In what is the wrong response to a summer of racial awakening, the Oklahoma House has decided to go the opposite direction of confronting systemic racism.

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The entire country witnessed an outburst in organized protests and unorganized riots all in the name of racial justice throughout most of summer 2020. These powerful rallying cries garnered mixed responses from the general public and state and local governments. 

Oklahoma in particular, was far from impressed with much of the righteous outrage, and is taking drastic measures to discourage activists from using their First Amendment rights to assemble. 

In a rare early-morning vote on Wednesday, March 10, Republican lawmakers in the Oklahoma House approved legislation that would grant immunity to drivers who hit protesters. This bill means that drivers who unintentionally injure or kill protesters while “fleeing from a riot,” shall be granted civil and criminal immunity. 

The legislation, known as House Bill 1674, put forth by Rep. Kevin West, is just one of a handful of bills in the Oklahoma Legislature this year designed to stifle the efforts of protesters, and protests themselves. 

House Bill 1674 has come under fire from legislative Democrats who insist that the Republican majority is attempting to punish activists instead of addressing the systemic racism and police misconduct that spurred the widespread protests in the first place. 

Democratic Rep. John Waldron thinks the bill is extremely harsh and severe and accused Republican lawmakers of deliberately bringing up the measure for a vote around 12:30 a.m to avoid public scrutiny. 

Kevin McDugle, Republican representative of Broken Arrow, presented the bill on the House floor, claiming that he supports the rights of Oklahoma residents to air their grievances peacefully, but maintains that 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 made his case by referencing an incident that occured in Tulsa during a Black Lives Matter protest, where protesters were demonstrating on a highway. A driver in a pickup truck pulling a horse trailer drove through a group of protesters, resulting in several serious injuries. One man became paralyzed from the waist down after falling from an overpass.

McDugle said that they “acted out of fear.” The Tulsa County district attorney did not file any charges against the driver. 

Rep. Monroe Nichols, the first Black man elected to represent House District 72 in the Oklahoma House, alluded to criminal justice and police reforms as a more suitable and appropriate response to these issues. 

“Maybe the way to prevent something like this from ever happening again is to make reforms on the broader systemic issue,” Rep. Nichols said. 

Nichols said he is dreading the day he must tell his 12-year-old son that instead of addressing police reform, his state government “made it so that folks who may advocate for people who look like him can be run over with immunity.” 

Rep. Regina Goodwin questioned whether the Oklahoma legislature truly cares about the systemic problems that caused the protests. 

“Something happened over the summer,” she said, as she named victims of police violence in the state and across the U.S. 

“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?” she continued.

Civil rights campaigners have also warned that the Oklahoma bill serves to put Black lives in further danger. Some have pointed to the more than 100 incidents in just over three months last year in which drivers — both civilian and police — hit people with their vehicles at racial justice protests. 

Others brought to light the tragic story of Heather Heyer, who was killed in August 2017 when a white supremacists ran her over while she counter-protested the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. 

Heyer’s last Facebook status read: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” 

Oklahoma House Legislatures are definitely outraged, but they’re not paying attention to the root causes of what angers them. 

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