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With Oklahoma elected officials determined to make street protests a deadly endeavor, community leaders plan to go door-to-door to abolish the new law.
Veto Referendum seeks to undo anti-protest law
As defined in the Oklahoma Constitution, a veto referendum gives citizens the power to repeal recently passed legislation. In response to last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, Governor Stitt signed into law House Bill 1674. It gives legal protections to drivers who run over peaceful protesters in the street. Many see a citizen petition as the only way to fight back.
Joshua Harris-Till is president of the Young Democrats of America and a longtime Oklahoma Democratic leader. Along with other groups and community leaders, he’s spearheading the veto referendum to get rid of HB 1674. For him, it’s personal.
“Y’all don’t know how important this issue is to me. I was at the protest,” Harris-Till wrote in a Facebook post as he described standing between a driver and protesters at a George Floyd protest last summer.
“I saw him look at me and tighten his hands on the wheel, I saw his entire posture change when the cops knocked on his window and told him to turn around. He had plenty of space to turn around, he didn’t have to drive up to the protest area. He could’ve very well felt threatened, and thus ran his car into protestors, including myself.”
In order for a veto referendum to be successful, petitioners must gather signatures equal to 5 percent of voters in the last election for Governor. And the signatures all have to be gathered within 90 days of the end of Oklahoma’s legislative session. That means they’ll have to gather roughly 59,320 signatures by the middle of August. Oklahoma’s last successful veto referendum took place in 1970, according to the Oklahoma Policy Institute.
White gun rights activist jokes about running over protesters
Notably, Oklahoma Second Amendment Association President, Don Spencer, who lobbied legislators to pass the law, made his intentions clear when he gloated about the law on Facebook, calling it the “tread on you” bill. Despite vocal opposition from the ACLU, legislators eagerly passed the bill into law.
“The danger of this bill is not that it legalizes running over protesters, but the only reason that a person stops is because it’s illegal,” Harris-Till said in an interview with The Black Wall Street Times. “So making it legal in any form or fashion is extremely dangerous.”
He’s been using his time to grow support for the veto referendum. A volunteer sign-up form circulating on social media highlights the dangers of the new law. In addition to shielding drivers who hit protesters from any criminal or civil liability, the law has the potential to criminally charge organizations that aid a protest if the state government considers it a riot.
Constitutional rights under attack
Through collecting signatures, petitioners hope to “prove that the residents of Oklahoma value our constitutional rights more than our governor and legislators do,” according to the sign-up form.
While legislators in support of the new law have defended it on the grounds that protesters shouldn’t be in the streets blocking traffic, the U.S. Constitution makes it clear that the right to assemble is foundational to a democratic nation.
Moreover, many see state lawmakers’ warm embrace of armed White Second Amendment activists at the Oklahoma Capitol building as hypocritical, considering the heavily armed law enforcement response given to unarmed Black and Brown protesters fighting for First Amendment rights in the same building.
Running over protesters: a white supremacist tactic
Adriana Laws, an organizer for the Collegiate Freedom and Justice Coalition, voiced opposition to the new law in an interview with The Guardian, saying “They are targeting groups of protesters who are just wanting to use their freedom of speech, passing bills that will intimidate them in the hopes of keeping people from using their first amendment rights, passing bills that decriminalize the murder of protesters, which is absolutely insane.”
As a matter of fact, there’s been more than 100 instances of drivers hitting protesters since the beginning of the George Floyd uprisings. Perhaps the most infamous of these attacks occurred in 2017, when a white supremacist drove his car through peaceful protesters at a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
While lawmakers intend to silence dissent and limit protest following the signing of this new law, it appears to have had the opposite reaction. Outrage continues to grow at a law that many say encourages violence.
“It will only make things worse. It doesn’t solve any problems, and that’s what I think we should be focused on,” Harris-Till said. Organizers plan to file the official paperwork for the veto referendum against HB 1674 today. Anyone looking for more information on how to get involved can fill out the volunteer sign-up form.