Legislators send wrong message with bill

Tina Bridenstine
The Shawnee News-Star

“You're prettier with your mouth shut.”

That's a phrase often repeated in a book I read recently (“The Fountains of Silence” by Ruta Sepetys).

I'm beginning to wonder if it's also a phrase that would meet with approval at the Oklahoma Capitol.

The state Senate will be considering HB 1674, passed by the House in the middle of the night last week. The bill would allow protestors to be charged with a misdemeanor – punishable by one year in prison and fines up to $5,000 – for obstructing streets and highways. It could also punish organizations that planned the protest.

That's not the most notable feature of the bill, however. It also protects those who kill or injure protestors by driving into them.

The bill reads that if a motor vehicle operator “unintentionally” causes injury or death, they shall not be held criminally or civilly liable if they were fleeing from a riot in fear of their safety and if they “exercised due care.”

The bill seems, at best, tone deaf. In Tulsa last May, protestors were injured when a man drove his truck through a crowd of people blocking I-244. It wasn't an isolated incident. According to an article from the Wall Street Journal ( www.wsj.com/articles/cars-have-hit-protesters-more-than-100-times-this-year-11603645201 ), between May and September of 2020, there were more than 100 incidents of protestors being hit by motor vehicles.

I cannot tell you how many times in the past few years I have seen people share memes joking about running over protestors, or even glibly saying themselves, "I would just run them over" — but I can tell you it has been a common refrain among people I know here in Oklahoma and surrounding states. Often, those comments haven't even been about fear of safety, merely the possible inconvenience of being held up in traffic.

It's easy to imagine being in a situation where you might be surrounded by protestors and think, “Well, if you're worried about your safety, and it's unintentional, then it must be OK.”

And yet, vehicles can be weapons. How many times has a comparison been made between a drunk driver and a loaded gun?

If someone found themselves amid protestors, said they were in fear for their life, and then indiscriminately opened fire on anyone in front of them, would you then excuse them of that action? If they threw a grenade, would you be OK with it? Because driving a vehicle into a crowd of human beings is not so different – you don't know who you will hit or what damage you will do, but someone will be hurt.

There is no way to fire a loaded weapon into a crowd – or drive a vehicle into one – and also “exercise due care.”

Further, the bill seeks protection for motorists like the one in Tulsa, but that driver did not face charges after the DA looked into the case.

Whether intentionally or not, when the House passes a bill that muzzles protestors and protects those who could hurt them, it sends a message that legislators don't want to hear any sort of criticism against the system as it is.

But also, it's a bill that sets a dangerous example. It's clear from what happened in Tulsa that prosecutors already have the ability to look over the facts of a case and decide not to press charges if they believe the drivers acted out of fear for their own safety. And there are too many people out there who would take the bill as an excuse to do harm.

Read the bill at http://webserver1.lsb.state.ok.us/cf_pdf/2021-22%20ENGR/hB/HB1674%20ENGR.PDF

Tina Bridenstine

Tina Bridenstine is a reporter with The Shawnee News-Star. She can be reached at tina.bridenstine@news-star.com. Follow her on Twitter @tbridenstine1