Critics say the Republican-backed measure targets legal protests in the wake of nationwide demonstrations over the police killing of George Floyd last year.
OKLAHOMA CITY (CN) — Republican Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt signed a controversial bill late Wednesday that gives civil and criminal protection to motorists who injure or kill rioters, resulting in protesters interrupting a session of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.
Stitt signed House Bill 1674, which protects motorists who “unintentionally” injure or kill rioters as long as they have “a reasonable belief that fleeing was necessary to protect the motor vehicle operator from serious injury or death.” Motorists who “exercise due care” at the time of injury or death are also protected.
The bill defines a rioter as a person engaging in “any murder, maiming, robbery, rape or arson” during civil unrest. It becomes effective on Nov. 1.
HB 1674 was authored by Republican state Representatives Kevin West and Kevin McDugle. It passed the Oklahoma House 79-18 in March and the Oklahoma Senate 38-10 last week, mostly along party lines.
“We are sending a message today in Oklahoma that rioters who threaten law abiding citizens’ safety will not be tolerated,” Stitt said in a written statement. “I remain unequivocally committed to protecting every Oklahoman’s First Amendment right to peacefully protest as well as their right to feel safe in their community.”
Critics disagree, accusing Oklahoma Republicans of targeting legal protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police last year and the nationwide protests that followed. Former officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder Tuesday for Floyd’s death.
Over 30 demonstrators in opposition to HB 1674 and other Republican-backed bills targeting protesters and transgender people interrupted proceedings in the Oklahoma House Wednesday afternoon, shouting slogans and raising their fists in the gallery above the House floor. After enduring several minutes of shouting, lawmakers left the House floor. Law enforcement later escorted several protesters out of the Capitol.
Protester Jess Eddy told reporters outside the Oklahoma Capitol the measures “seek to oppress and silence” protesters.
“These bills [seek] to run us over and kill us,” Eddy said. “We are here to express an objection to that and to show that we stand together.”
Co-author West said he proposed the bill after a motorist in Oklahoma was surrounded by protesters in a roadway last summer while his wife and two small children were in his truck.
“The protesters beat at his truck and threw things at it, scaring both him and his family,” West said in March. “The driver was severely chastised for trying to hurt the protesters and he even faced the possibility of criminal charges for his actions in attempting to evade the protesters. This measure would clarify a motorist’s rights in a similar situation going forward.”
HB 1674 also strengthens criminal penalties against protesters who obstruct roadways and make them impassable or hazardous. It makes such actions misdemeanors punishable by up to one year in state prison and subject to fines of up to $5,000.