Tennessee Lawmakers Want to Make It Nice and Legal to Run Over Protesters

The bill would also make virtually any protest a potential felony.
March 4, 2021, 5:07pm
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Following a year in which dozens of motorists all over the country drove their vehicles into groups of people protesting racial inequality, Tennessee lawmakers have proposed a bill that would make such vehicular assaults nice and legal.

House Bill 0513 and its Senate counterpart, first introduced in early February, is a double whammy in its promotion of fascism, attacking both the rights of demonstrators to peacefully protest and immunizing motorists to violently attack those same protesters. 

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The bill stiffens penalties for protesters blocking roads, elevators, hallways or "any other place used for the passage of persons, vehicles or conveyances," in both public places and places where members of the public have reasonable expectations to access, to a mandatory Class E felony. In Tennessee, Class E felonies have a jail sentence of between one and six years. 

In other words, this bill would mean blocking a sidewalk or road as part of a protest—perhaps because there are very many people participating—would make any and all protesters potential felons.

Another clause in the bill would allow anyone either inconvenienced by those protests or who disagree with them to simply run those people over.

While the bill says the driver must be "exercising due care" and any injury or death caused must be unintentional, it is patently absurd to suggest a driver could both be exercising due care and unintentionally run over protesters. Instead, the bill is quite obviously worded to give people who commit vehicular assault or manslaughter an out; as long as they say they didn't mean to, it will be legal.

This is not the first time Tennessee has attempted to enact such a law. In 2017, a bill that would have granted such vehicular terrorists civil immunity from their actions died in committee. The sponsor of that bill, Matthew Hill, told the Memphis Commercial Appeal the bill was inspired by protests over the death of Michael Brown in 2014 that temporarily blocked traffic on various Nashville roads and highways. In those cases, all motorists stopped and no one was run over. 

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Nor is Tennessee the only state that considered such bills in 2017. According to University of Chicago researcher Ari Weil, who has tracked vehicular terrorism in the United States, six states proposed bills that would have provided protections for drivers who hit protesters. None became law.

The most recent Tennessee bill is not a departure from, but rather doubling down on, widespread conceptions about who and what American roads are for and how much drivers should be responsible for what their car does. In a sense, cars are the perfect weapon for such a crime, because Americans are already predisposed to view any car crash as an "accident" and not a reckless act that can be reasonably expected to harm others. The implementation of crosswalks—and the subsequent blaming of anyone struck outside of one—and "distracted walking" are just two examples of how various legal and social forces have shifted the blame from the perpetrators to the victims of vehicular violence.

Into this already permissive environment for recklessness came a sharp increase in ideologically motivated vehicular terrorism. From May 27 to September 5, Weil counted 104 incidents of drivers "going into protests." The reports from many of these incidents are eerily similar: protesters, often with video evidence, unanimously agree the vehicle accelerated into them at dangerous speeds in a blatantly intentional manner. Authorities either issue misdemeanor charges or decline to prosecute. 

As a report from the Memphis Commercial Appeal in July detailed, many perpetrators of vehicular violence against protesters get away with little more than misdemeanors, far more lenient charges than peaceful protesters would be subject to under the new Tennessee bill, even after posting memes and inflammatory rhetoric on social media about their intentions to run over protesters. In a similar case from May in California, authorities found "a loaded semiautomatic handgun, various loaded high-capacity magazines, an 18-inch machete, $3,200 in cash, a megaphone and a long metal pipe" in a truck adorned with extremist right wing bumper stickers that plowed into a group of protesters. Authorities charged the driver, Benjamin Jong Ren Hun, with a misdemeanor, and released him. He has since been charged with conspiring to violate firearms laws by setting up an extremist training camp. 

The lawmakers in Tennessee implausibly claim the bill is not intended to protect such people. "If you’re intentionally cause [sic] harm this bill won't cover you, that’s not what we’re trying to do here,” Representative William Lamberth said

But in a Twitter thread from September, Weil makes clear that, regardless of the intention lawmakers have, even the proposal of such bills encourages people to use their cars as weapons against protesters under the assumption the system has their backs. They're not wrong to think so. Only 39 of those 104 drivers Weil counted were charged. Apparently, Tennessee lawmakers think that's too many.