With only hours left before the deadline, canvassers in Oklahoma City, Tulsa and across the state are rushing to collect signatures to repeal a new law that allows drivers to run over protesters with no consequences.
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.
The law states “a person, who lawfully is in an occupied vehicle that is approached and surrounded by a person or persons engaged in unlawful activity who has blocked the road, shall not be subject to criminal or civil prosecution for a reasonable effort to escape from the unlawful activity with or without damage to the vehicle.”
Oklahoma’s version of what the American Civil Liberties Union calls “hit and run” bills joined a chorus of mostly Southern states forcefully responding to the country’s largest racial justice protests. Nebraska, Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Rhode Island, Kentucky, and Mississippi have all introduced similar legislation in recent days, according to an analysis by the Intercept.
Petitioners race against the clock
Since the end of Oklahoma’s legislative session in May, petitioners have been working tirelessly to collect the needed 59,000+ signatures within the 90 day deadline to place State Question 816 on the ballot.
SQ 816 would repeal the “hit and run” through a vote of the people. Organizers against the “hit and run” law claim it’s meant to discourage peaceful protests that block roadways while giving drivers free reign to commit acts of terror against those protestors.
Organizers say the law “infringes on our first amendment right to peacefully assemble…removes civil and criminal liability for running over and even killing a protester…and creates a financial liability for any organization who is deemed to have conspired with an accused rioter,” according to the campaign website for the petition drive.
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 previously 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.”
Law gives drivers a license to kill
Most recently, while he wasn’t able to confirm the number of total signatures gathered, Joshua Harris-Till told The Black Wall Street Times the campaign effort had distributed at least 100,000 petitions in the last three months.
“Today, we’re hoping to get as many of those back completed as possible,” Harris-Till said.
In a message to TheBWSTimes, Harris-Till expressed his frustration over the fact that petitioners are risking their lives to gather signatures against a deadly law, while legislators continue to deny the law gives drivers a license to kill.
“The white supremacists that we’ve asked to sign the petition have very clearly and consistently replied, ‘no. I want to run people over’.”
The effort to bring the issue directly to Oklahoma voters comes after a driver plowed an SUV into protesters, in Minneapolis, killing one. A witness said the man driving an SUV was traveling at a high rate of speed and appeared to accelerate as he got closer to demonstrators.
“They want to kill us, period”
Moreover, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, protesters took to the streets of Tulsa in the summer of 2020 to demand policy change. On back-to-back days, a driver intentionally drove through the organized protests – striking and literally running over protestors. On one occasion, a driver pulling a horse trailer declined to turn around as countless other drivers had.
The driver accelerated from a full-stop and ran over protestors on the highway. One protester fell from the overpass and is now paralyzed. The driver stopped to talk with law enforcement, still in full sight of protestors, and the highway patrol sent him on his way. Months later, all governing authorities chose to not pursue charges against the man.
“So, when someone dies and the news goes to interview these stupid people don’t let them pretend like they didn’t know what they were doing,” Harris-Till added. “They want to kill us, period!”