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Should drivers who hit protesters be legally shielded?

Here’s a question I never thought we’d be debating. Anyone who has watched the “peaceful protests” put on by Black Lives Matter and Antifa around the country for the past few years is familiar with one repeating scene. Protesters swarm onto the streets or highways, shutting down traffic. Too often, the so-called “peaceful” protesters begin beating on vehicles and sometimes even trying to drag the occupants out of their cars. This has led to multiple instances where panicking drivers have had to make the choice to simply hit the gas and escape, even if it means hitting some of the protesters on their way out of the riot. Now, legislators in a number of states are considering changes to the law that would create much harsher penalties for masses of people blocking traffic and shielding drivers from prosecution if they run some of them down while making their escape. This is obviously being seen as an incendiary tactic on the left. (Associated Press)

When massive demonstrations against racial injustice erupted across the nation last summer, protesters used an increasingly common tactic to draw attention to their cause: swarming out onto major roads to temporarily paralyze traffic.

This method sometimes resulted in searing images of drivers plowing through crowds, causing serious injuries and in some cases, deaths.

Now, Republican politicians across the country are moving to stop the road-blocking maneuver, proposing increased penalties for demonstrators who run onto highways and legal immunity for drivers who hit them. The bills are among dozens introduced in Legislatures aimed at cracking down on demonstrations.

Bills such as these are currently under consideration in more than a dozen states. They include Iowa, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Utah.

There are two separate issues here. The first is the idea of enhancing penalties for people engaging in these traffic blockades. Personally, I’m all for it. If you want to organize an actual peaceful demonstration and march in the streets, apply for a permit. Once granted the police will assist you in blocking off the streets in the designated area for the allotted time of the demonstration and redirect traffic while it’s going on. It’s really that simple.

On the other hand, blocking traffic illegally is not an example of free speech. It not only places drivers in potential danger from the mob but stops ambulances, firetrucks and police from being able to make their way to the scene of any accidents, fires or other emergencies that erupt. One or two people momentarily holding up traffic while jaywalking isn’t that big of a deal. Thousands of people shutting down entire sections of a major city is. Perhaps some serious fines and jail time would curb this behavior.

My chief concern with this type of legislation is how the police would be able to enforce it. When these riots take place, we’re talking about hundreds, if not thousands of people clogging the streets. How can the police possibly arrest them all? Where would you lock them up? And there’s always the danger that the mob will turn and just begin attacking the cops. We’ve already seen that happening far too often. It’s a complicated issue to be sure.

As to offering immunity for people who strike protesters with their vehicles, I don’t know that such a policy would be either required or wise. If that happens and the driver can establish that they were fleeing because they were legitimately in fear for their safety, formal immunity shouldn’t be required. That’s an act of self-defense. It’s the same type of situation as has been seen repeatedly with home invasions and shootings. It’s illegal to just walk up to someone and shoot them. It’s not illegal to shoot someone who is in the process of trying to kill or assault you.

Further, passing laws formalizing such immunity could backfire. While it’s sad to say, there are some individuals who might see such a law as an open invitation to run down some people they disagree with. Given the way that technology has evolved, it shouldn’t be that difficult to establish self-defense. Everyone at these protests seems to be filming everything that happens with their phones throughout the entire event. Also, more and more cars have dash cameras these days. You should be able to prevail in court without some special immunity law.