Op-Ed

Legislature wants to put the brakes on protests, but not hostile drivers

Well, that didn’t take long.

There’s already a kill-the-protesters bill being floated in the Florida Legislature.

Florida is one of 18 states where Republican lawmakers are seeking new criminal sanctions against street protests, sanctions that go beyond existing laws.

These new bills take a variety of forms.

In Arizona, protesters are being likened to mobsters subject to prosecution under the organized-crime laws and subject to seizure of their assets. In Minnesota, a bill under consideration calls for jailing highway protesters for up to one year. That’s peanuts compared to Oklahoma, where lawmakers are gunning for 10-year prison sentences to anybody trespassing on “critical infrastructure.”

Florida seems to be adopting the Tennessee approach by empowering motorists to plow through protesters if they happen to be blocking traffic.

Florida drivers are perfectly capable of mowing down pedestrians without any encouragement from the government. So this seems like overkill. Literally.

The Florida bill, SB 1096, is sponsored by state Sen. George B. Gainer, who owns a Florida Panhandle Lincoln-Mercury car dealership. Makes sense he’d find a car solution to curbing impressive displays of public dissent.

His bill makes it a second-degree misdemeanor, punished by up to six months in jail, to “obstruct or interfere” with traffic on public roads, streets and highways for a protest or demonstration that is not sanctioned by a government permit.

If this were the beginning and end of the Florida bill, it would come off as a rather modest attempt to bolster the delusions of popularity so critical to our new president’s emotional equilibrium.

But it’s just subsection (1). And the ghastly part is coming up …

“A motor vehicle operator who unintentionally causes injury or death to a person who obstructs or interferes with the regular flow of vehicular traffic in violation of subsection (1) is not liable for such injury or death,” it reads.

OK, so now it’s starting to get ugly, and leading up to this …

“In any action brought pursuant to this section, a person accused of violating subsection (1) or his or her representative has the burden of proving that he or she did not violate subsection (1) or that the injury or death was not unintentional.”

Translation: If you get run over during a protest, you or your next of kin must prove that the driver meant to hit you.

Or to look at it another way, if you’re a driver who is irked by people who don’t share your politics blocking the street, you can mow a few of them down as long as you don’t make your intentions too obvious. These car-protester encounters are already happening.

Last month in Nashville, Tennessee, a group of protesters crossing a street with safety monitors in orange vests lining the route were struck by an SUV rolling through the pedestrian-filled crosswalk, according to police.

“We were accompanying people across the street,” protester Jack Wiley, an orange-vest-wearing safety monitor, told a local television station. “And while we were doing that an SUV started to turn, and we asked him to stop. And he chose not to stop.

“And he kept going, inching forward, and then he struck three of us,” Wiley said, “And three of the people on the safety team tried to prevent him front hitting anybody else.

“We had to jump on the hood to protect ourselves after he hit us.”

The event was captured on video. No charges against the driver have been filed yet.

And now drivers like him may soon have laws in Florida and other states to make this sort of crowd control more legally protected.

Paging Mr. Orwell.

Frank Cerabino writes for The Palm Beach Post.

© 2017 Cox Newspapers

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