(This story has been updated to reflect more of State Sen. Shane Jett’s response.)
Motivated by her own experiences with racial profiling, Adriana Laws emerged as a leader in the fight for police reform in Oklahoma last summer.
Laws, a 22-year-old Black student at Rose State College and president of the Collegiate Freedom and Justice Coalition, said she was optimistic that frequent demonstrations would push local authorities and state lawmakers to enact police accountability measures. The activist group gained an early victory when Yukon city officials agreed to ban chokeholds and no-knock warrants served at night.
“That was one of the very first things that happened when we started, and it made me so hopeful that we might be able to change things if we keep pushing hard enough,” Laws said.
As protests over George Floyd’s murder in police custody spread last spring, state legislative leaders started paying attention. House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka and Senate Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, told Oklahoma Watch in June that the legislature had not adequately considered racial injustice and would be open to discussions about police reform.
Nearly a year later, the Republican-led legislature has instead focused on passing legislation that increases penalties for demonstrators who disrupt public meetings and protects motorists who hurt or kill rioters. Bills that would have banned law enforcement use of chokeholds and created a statewide database of police officers who were fired or resigned before facing disciplinary action did not receive committee hearings.
Last week, Gov. Kevin Stitt signed House Bill 1674 from Sen. Rob Standridge, R-Norman, and Rep. Kevin West, R-Moore. The bill shields drivers from criminal or civil liability if they injure or kill someone while fearful for their life and attempting to “flee a riot.” State law defines a riot as three or more people acting violently or using force after threatening to do so.
The new measure also classifies obstructing a roadway as a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine. Blocking vehicle traffic is a longstanding nonviolent protest tactic that was common during the civil rights movement.
Standridge said he introduced the bill in response to an incident last May where a pickup truck driver accelerated through a crowd of protesters that were blocking Interstate 244 in Tulsa. Three people were seriously injured, including a 33-year-old man who was paralyzed from the waist down after falling from a bridge.
Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler declined to file criminal charges against the driver, saying he and his family were victims of a “violent and unprovoked attack.”
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Standridge said legislation was necessary to ensure that any driver caught in a similar situation doesn’t face the threat of prosecution.
“People can still protest, but if they start beating up on people’s cars and threatening them, in those instances citizens need a way to get out,” Standridge said in a video recording posted on Twitter. “That’s what this bill is about.”
West said in a statement that the bill does not infringe on First Amendment rights and is not targeted towards certain activists or groups. In an interview with Fox News last week, West likened the bill to an extension of Oklahoma’s self-defense law.
“I certainly support the right to peacefully protest and assemble. I will not, however, endorse rioters that spill onto city or state streets, blocking traffic and even harming property of vehicle operators who are simply trying to move freely,” he said. “This law gives clarity to those motorists that they are in fact within their rights to seek safety.”
Iowa and Florida have passed similar legislation protecting drivers who injure or kill protesters under certain circumstances. At least 81 bills restricting protests have been filed in 34 states, the New York Times reported last week.
Activists fear the bill will embolden some motorists to drive through crowds of protesters. They’re also concerned that law enforcement and district attorneys will value the word of motorists over that of demonstrators.
Jess Eddy, an Oklahoma City activist and law student who was at the May 31 protest in Tulsa, challenges the account that the driver had no choice but to run over protesters to escape a dangerous situation. Eddy said the motorist was simply frustrated to be stuck in traffic and escalated tensions by accelerating towards demonstrators.
“Activists are intelligent and leaders are trained in exercising restraint and keeping people safe,” he said. “Never have activists in Oklahoma ever initiated an altercation between a driver and us because of the realities of that scenario. It’s stupid, we’ll get killed.”
Since H.B. 1674 was introduced, Laws said she’s received death threats from people who see the bill as an opportunity to run over protesters without consequence. She said the legislation won’t stop her from protesting, but it could be a deterrent for others.
“We’re nonviolent protesters and don’t want anyone to get hurt,” Laws said. “But as we see, there are people that have very different ideas and ideologies about us and what they would like to do to us. It’s terrifying, this is literal intimidation and fear-mongering.”
Nicole McAfee, director of policy and advocacy for the ACLU of Oklahoma, said the bill is flawed in part because motorists caught in emotionally charged situations aren’t going to immediately differentiate between a protest and a riot. The bill doesn’t specify that a motorist must be surrounded by rioters to qualify for immunity, but it does say the driver should exercise “due care” at the time of death or injury.
“By giving them this permission to not think twice, we put a lot of people in danger,” McAfee said. “I never want to have to test a law by someone being either seriously injured or killed because someone thought that they were in the right.”
‘They Won’t Communicate’
Duron Wise doesn’t feel well represented in state government. The 24-year-old senior at Rose State College has tried reaching out to his representatives, Rep. Robert Manger and Sen. Shane Jett, and legislative leadership. The most common response is silence.
“I recognize that because of where I live and who my representatives are at the state level, it’s going to be very difficult to receive an audience from them because ideologically they don’t agree with me,” Wise said. “They don’t see me as a constituent, they see me as an Antifa thug or a terrorist who doesn’t have any kind of valid opinion because I’m a Black man who is loud.”
Jett, who was reached for comment on Friday, said he has no record of Wise contacting his office before House Bill 1674 was put to a Senate vote. He said Wise stopped by the Senate lobby on April 21 but left quickly and did not leave any contact information or identify himself as a constituent.
“I was disappointed that he and his group had gone because I would very much like to have spoken to him and his group,” Jett said. “Mr. Wise did not identify himself as a constituent on his note. I had no way of contacting him once he left.”
Manger did not immediately respond to a written request for comment.
Unlike most states, Oklahoma doesn’t require public comment before a bill is put to a vote. Committee chairs rarely allow the public to speak before lawmakers decide whether or not to advance a bill.
Laws said the Collegiate Freedom and Justice Coalition has advocates in the Democratic caucus and with the ACLU who often speak up on their behalf, but as far as personally engaging with lawmakers introducing and advancing bills that restrict protests, there’s been no progress.
“We had to start going about it a different way because they won’t sit down and meet with us,” Laws said. “They won’t have a phone call with us. We’ve had call-in and email campaigns where we’ve had hundreds of people contacting their offices and they don’t reply.”
On April 21, about three dozen nonviolent protesters from the Collegiate Freedom and Justice Coalition entered the House gallery and interrupted floor proceedings. In addition to H.B. 1674, they were also protesting bills they see as anti-abortion and transphobic. While there were verbal altercations between a few lawmakers and demonstrators, state troopers escorted the protesters out of the room without issue.
Eddy, who was shown on video engaging in heated conversations with lawmakers, said protesters were well within their right to engage in civil disobedience and share their message.
“They’re not respecting the voice of the minority party, the Democrats, and they’re certainly not respecting the voice of a large swath of the public, particularly Black people, communities of color and LGBT+ people,” Eddy said.
Protests, Legal Action Against Bill Likely
Activists are plotting their next steps to challenge H.B. 1674, which is set to take effect Nov. 1.
McAfee said the ACLU of Oklahoma is in conversations with states that have passed similar legislation about how to move forward legally. A federal lawsuit challenging the bill’s constitutionality is not out of the question, she said.
“There are definitely constitutional concerns with it, especially in regard to chilling speech,” McAfee said. “On our part as an organization, we’ll spend the next several days and I’m sure weeks really deeply analyzing this law.”
The bill could also be overturned through a citizen initiative. Joshua Harris-Till, an Oklahoma City activist and president of the Young Democrats of America organization, announced on Wednesday that he was launching a referendum petition to put H.B. 1674 to a citizen vote. Organizers would need to collect 60,000 signatures in 90 days and survive any legal challenges.
Brian Ted Jones, Harris-Till’s attorney, announced on Twitter that he had filed the referendum petition paperwork with the Oklahoma Secretary of State’s office and signature gathering would begin soon.
While legal options are being explored, Laws said the Collegiate Freedom and Justice Coalition will continue to organize demonstrations and advocate against H.B. 1674 and similar bills restricting protests. The group is scheduled to hold a “White Silence is Violence” protest in Nichols Hills on Friday night.
“We need to be challenging them federally, we need to stay in the streets, we need to be getting these lawmakers when election time comes around,” Laws said. “People need to mobilize because even if you think this particular law doesn’t affect you, it might affect someone you love.”
Though concerned that bad actors could target him and other protesters, Wise said he’ll continue attending protests and speaking up for marginalized communities.
“It is to a certain extent frightening, but I don’t operate with fear,” Wise said. “This isn’t going to dissuade me, this is really just going to strengthen our resolve, because we understand that this fight is not a battle but a war. We might take a defeat on legislation, but we’re going to keep fighting.”
Keaton Ross is a Report for America corps member who covers democracy for Oklahoma Watch. Contact him at (405) 831-9753 or Kross@Oklahomawatch.org. Follow him on Twitter at @_KeatonRoss.