When violent protests erupted last summer in Charlotte over the fatal police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, one of the scenes that made international headlines was an image of protesters blocking Interstate 85, setting fires and terrifying motorists.
It was a repeat of something that had happened four months earlier on Interstate 40 in Memphis, Tenn., and state lawmakers are pursuing legislation aimed at protecting motorists, should it happen again. Similar legislation is also being discussed in North Dakota, which has dealt with disruptive protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Under Tennessee’s proposed House Bill 668, someone who runs over a protester blocking the street can’t be sued for injuries.
“A person driving an automobile who is exercising due care and injures another person who is participating in a protest or demonstration and is blocking traffic in a public right-of-way is immune from civil liability for such injury,” says the proposed law.
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Only in cases where the injury occurred in a “willful or wanton” way could the motorist be held accountable, says the law.
A similar bill has been introduced in the Tennessee senate by Republican Sen. Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro, it was reported by WTVC News in Chattanooga, Tenn.
“We believe that citizens have the right to protest. There is a procedure for peaceful protests, and the purpose of that process is to protect the safety of our citizens,” Ketron told WTVC News Channel 9 in Chattanooga.
“Protesters have no right to be in the middle of the road or our highways for their own safety and the safety of the traveling public.”
CNN reports similar legislation has also been proposed in North Dakota, prompted by protests there over the Dakota Access Pipeline. There, if a driver "unintentionally" causes injury or death to someone blocking traffic on a roadway, then the driver will not be liable for damages.
Legislators say they were spurred to act after Dakota Access Pipeline protesters last year moved to block public roadways, scaring some of his constituents, reported CNN.
The Observer reached out Tuesday via email to four N.C. lawmakers, to see if they thought such protections should be considered here. None had responded as of Wednesday morning.
Charlotte first experienced protesters blocking streets in the early morning hours of Sept. 21, after rumors spread on social media that Charlotte Mecklenburg Police had shot and killed an African American man carrying a book. (The man, Keith Lamont Scott, was later identified by police as armed with a gun.)
Protests over the shooting erupted Sept 21, and eventually spilled off W.T. Harris Boulevard onto Interstate 85, shutting down traffic in both directions.
As video cameras rolled, news outlets like ABC reported: “The scene on I-85 appeared to devolve into looting, with people pulling items from tractor-trailers and burning boxes.”
An Observer story published days later used 911 call recordings to reveal how motorists gridlocked in cars pleaded with 911 operators for help.
One of the first calls came from a woman in a Chrysler 300 stuck in traffic at Harris Boulevard and North Tryon Street when demonstrators began pounding on cars.
“I’m trapped,” she said in the 911 recording. “They’re all in the street … Oh my God, they’re coming!”
Protesters attempted to repeat the tactic a day later, climbing into lanes of Interstate 277 at Caldwell Street. However, they encountered police in riot gear and who moved them off the highway onto Church Street nearby.