USA First Look

North Dakota bill would protect drivers who hit protesters obstructing traffic

State GOP Rep. Keith Kempenich is pushing legislation that would exempt from liability drivers who unintentionally injure or kill pedestrians obstructing traffic on public roads.

A large group of veterans holds flags as they stand on Highway 1806, just outside the Oceti Sakowin camp, as 'water protectors' demonstrate against plans to pass the Dakota Access pipeline near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, in December 2016.
Lucas Jackson/Reuters/File
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Some drivers in North Dakota would be protected from the legal consequences of running over a pedestrian protester under a bill that is expected to soon be introduced in the state legislature.

The proposed legislation is a direct response to demonstrators’ blocking of a highway as part of a protest over the proposed North Dakota Access pipeline, closing the thoroughfare for much of the past year, says the bill’s main sponsor.

“If you stay off the roadway, this would never be an issue,” Republican state Rep. Keith Kempenich told the Star Tribune in nearby Minneapolis, Minnesota. “Those motorists are going about the lawful, legal exercise of their right to drive down the road…Those people didn’t ask to be in this.

The bill is part of a slew of legislative measures Republican lawmakers in North Dakota have written to combat the protests they say have disrupted life in and around the Standing Rock reservation. But the bill comes as protests on issues ranging from the wealth gap, to racial injustice, to immigrants’ rights have shifted from public squares and other gathering places to roads, bridges, and highways, often bringing life to a standstill, and forcing officials to come up with solutions.

"It often seems precisely to be a form of protest about rights and recognition before it is about seizing the basics of survival," Joshua Clover, a professor at the University of California, Davis, and author "Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings," previously told The Christian Science Monitor, comparing these modern-day protests to famine strikes in 17th- and 18th-century Britain that also used road blockades.

"At the same time, it steps up the intensity of street protests by actively threatening to bring to a halt the whole organization of the world that violently excludes billions globally, millions locally, on a daily business," Dr. Clover wrote in an email to the Monitor.

As it’s written, the North Dakota bill would protect a driver “who negligently causes injury or death to an individual obstructing vehicular traffic” from being convicted of an offense or being held liable for damages. Mr. Kempenich told the Star Tribune the bill is not intended to protect someone who deliberately tries to run down a protester or a driver who hits a jaywalker or a child chasing a ball into the street, for example.

"This bill puts the onus on somebody who's made a conscious decision to put themselves in harm's way," he said. "You can protest all you want, but you can't protest up on a roadway. It's dangerous for everybody."

In the Dakota Access pipeline protest in the southern part of the state, demonstrators have all but stopped traffic on Highway 1806, which passes through the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. The protest against the oil pipeline, proposed to pass under the Missouri River and through tribal burial grounds and cultural sites, has forced drivers to detour for miles, according to the Star Tribune.

The tactic of blocking a road, whether it’s dirt or paved, dates back to the 14th century. But for much of history this ploy was usually used to prevent the export of grain by merchants in times of famine, according to Clover. Starting in the 20th century, the focus often shifted to social issues, such as during the Selma to Montgomery march that used US Route 80 in Alabama during the Civil Rights movement of the 60s, as Sarah Goodyear reported for The Atlantic’s CityLab in 2014.

With the Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter movements, the blocking of major roadways and bridges has become even more common, influencing the way Americans use and view roads, as Jim Dalrymple II reported for BuzzFeed when he covered the protests over the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Mo. That same year,

For much of August the street morphed into a dynamic, if sometimes violent, civic gathering space. It became a kind of public square, which is surprising because other recent protest movements have been tied to spaces that were already intentionally civic: the Egyptian revolution in Tahrir Square; the Ukrainian revolution in Independence Square; Occupy in Zuccotti Park. 

Lawmakers across the country have struggled with how to address this new reality. Republican Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed a law this past year that increases penalties on protesters who block traffic to political events, a response to the about two dozen cars that parked in a middle of a highway in March to prevent rallygoers from seeing President-elect Donald Trump and the controversial former sheriff Joe Arpaio.

This report contains material from the Associated Press. 

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