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In 2017, James Fields Jr., a white self-proclaimed neo-Nazi ran his car into a group of anti-racist protesters in Charlottesville, killing one person and injuring 35 others. He was charged and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Four years later, Republicans are attempting to pass legislation that would allow people like Fields to get off for similar offenses. 

Politicians in several states are working to sign into law bills that grant civil immunity to drivers who unintentionally hurt or kill protesters on the street, Slate reported.

On Monday, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed an anti-riot bill that protects drivers who plow their cars into crowds out of fear for their well-being. In contrast, the bill enforces strict criminal penalties for protesters who gather in a public setting, charging them with a third-degree felony. 

In Oklahoma, drivers who unintentionally kill or injure while driving into a crowd could walk free if they claim they feared for their life or were attempting to escape. 

The state laws are just two out of the recent legislation passed by Republicans across the country. According to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law’s U.S. Protest Law Tracker, a total of 17 states have passed at least 30 anti-protesting bills and executive orders. Some of the legislation expands on the definition of the words incitement and riot which subsequently increases penalties.

In Florida, a group of three or more is considered a riot under state law.  

During summer 2020, people angered by the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, took to the streets to protest. During some of those protests, drivers rammed their cars into large crowds, running over demonstrators and killing them, The Washington Post reported. 

According to The Wall Street Journal, cars rammed into crowds, hitting protesters more than 100 times in 2020. 

A demand for change over the summer brought upon the call for defunding the police. Now, Slate is reporting that some anti-riot bills are in response to those calls. 

DeSantis said the new legislation “actually prevents local governments from defunding law enforcement.” The bill further punishes those who “willingly” participate in protests that turn violent even if they are not directly involved in the specific crime. 

“If you look at the breadth of this particular piece of legislation, it is the strongest anti-rioting, pro-law enforcement piece of legislation in the country,” DeSantis said at a press conference. “There’s just nothing even close.”

Critics of the anti-protest bills say this could stifle freedom of speech by discouraging Americans from demonstrating and exercising their rights, the Orlando Sentinel reported

“The problem with this bill is that the language is so overbroad and vague … that it captures anybody who is peacefully protesting at a protest that turns violent through no fault of their own,” Kara Gross, the legislative director at ACLU Florida, said. “Those individuals who do not engage in any violent conduct under this bill can be arrested and charged with a third-degree felony and face up to five years in prison and loss of voting rights. The whole point of this is to instill fear in Floridians.”

Black state Senator Shevrin Jones said the Florida bill “undermines every Floridian’s constitutional rights, and it is disgusting that the GOP would rather empower vigilantes and silence voices than listen to the majority of Floridians who oppose this dangerous bill. The governor’s spectacle is a distraction that will only further disenfranchise Black and brown communities.”

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