Photo Credit: Courtesy of McKenzie Wark
By Kaleigh Darty; Staff Member (Vol. 16)
Imagine that an unarmed young man in your hometown was shot and killed by police in the course of an arrest. Word spreads throughout the town, and soon after the incident, a video surfaces online. In a matter of hours, the young man’s name has gone viral, attached to the popular hash tag “#BlackLivesMatter.” Before you know it, people from all over the country are tweeting and posting about this man’s death and the circumstances surrounding it. In a matter of days, people near and far begin migrating to your hometown preparing for a protest.
Fast-forward: a rally is held. The young man’s family speaks out, a preacher offers words of encouragement, and then an activist speaks about the long battle between minorities and police in this country. The crowd’s mood is a mix between pain, sorrow, and anger, and so the march begins. The streets are filled with hundreds, maybe thousands, and they are all chanting, “No justice, no peace, no racist police!”
Now imagine you are a single parent, with three mouths at home to feed. Your minimum wage job is barely enough to keep the lights on anymore. Last week, your kid was sick, and the week before that your car wouldn’t start. Your manager gave you your final warning: one more late arrival and you will be out of a job. So here you are, on your way to work, and somehow you get stuck in the middle of a protest. You ask yourself, “Could this day get any worse?” By the time you arrive, madness surrounds you. Police can’t seem to get things under control, and there’s barely enough room for your car to make it down the street. So, you slow down, remain calm, and stay focused on the road. But then, out of nowhere, a protestor steps in front of your car. You collide.
While this picture is applicable to many all over the United States, it also hits close to home for those in North Carolina. Last year, this scenario took place in Charlotte, NC, following the death of Keith Lamont Scott. What began as a protest quickly turned into a riot. At first, just the streets were filled with people, but before long, the interstates became inaccessible. Buildings were vandalized, stores were looted, and the protest ended with another protestor being shot.
It seems as though, in the past year, we have seen hashtags for almost every social and political issue fathomable: #BlackLivesMatter, #WomensRightsAreHumanRights, #DakotaAccessPipeline. These hashtags are accompanied by pictures and videos that tell the stories of protestors all across the nation. As social and political issues rise in prominence, social media allows protestors nationwide to rally together swiftly and effectively to voice their grievances. However, many protests have been highly publicized as violent riots. As a result, lawmakers have proposed a series of bills that will increase penalties for specific “protest-related activity.” Many of these bills suggest that motorists should not be held liable in civil suits if their vehicle hits protestors that are blocking traffic.
In March 2017, North Carolina Republican state representatives introduced House Bill 330, also known as the “Driver Immunity Bill.” House Bill 330 proposed that a person driving an automobile with due care be immune from civil liability for any injury to a protestor who is participating in a demonstration that is blocking traffic on a public road at the time of the accident. State Representative Justin Burr, who introduced the bill, said the purpose of the bill was to ensure that “drivers don’t have to fear driving in Charlotte or anywhere in North Carolina.” The bill received renewed attention after Heather Heyer, a protestor at the Charlottesville protest this past August, died when a car ran into protestors. Burr has stated that the bill does not “allow for the driver of a vehicle to target protestors intentionally,” but it does “protect individuals from rightfully trying to drive down the road.” For those fearful of protesting under such a bill, lawmakers have stated that, if you simply avoid protesting on the roads, then this bill will not affect you.
While some argue that this law is necessary to maintain public safety, other lawmakers and constitutional scholars fear that these bills would be used as an intimidation tactic to discourage peaceful protests. Those in opposition to House Bill 330, and other bills similar to it, assert that “inconvenience is at the heart of protest.” Therefore, activists believe that when a person is inconvenienced by a protest, the chances of that person paying attention to the issue are much higher. Some worry that House Bill 330 will discourage peaceful protestors and infringe on many people’s First Amendment right to peacefully protest.
However, legal experts believe that the bill would have little impact due to North Carolina’s “contributory negligence” doctrine. The legal doctrine states that if a plaintiff is even 1% responsible for their injuries, they are unable to collect damages, making it very difficult for a plaintiff to win. Regardless of one’s stance on the issue, it is unlikely that House Bill 330 will be passed any time soon, as Governor Roy Cooper has vowed to veto the bill if it passes the Senate.
While it is understandable that representatives want to protect their constituents, it’s likely that this bill is unnecessary, as there are already protective measures in place to protect cautious drivers. In practice, it seems at least probable that this bill could be used to potentially intimidate and discourage protestors from exercising their First Amendment right to protest on public streets–a result with far-reaching implications.