House Bill 1674, which passed through the Senate by a vote of 38-10, would increase penalties for blocking roadways while also providing immunity to drivers who kill or injure motorists while fleeing the scene of a riot in fear for their lives, according to the Associated Press.
The bill comes in response to an incident in Tulsa, Oklahoma, last year in which a driver in a pickup truck drove through a group of protesters blocking an interstate and injured several protesters. The driver, whose family was present in the car, was not charged.
On May 31, a large crowd of protesters flooded Interstate 244 to protest the death of George Floyd, a man who died in Minneapolis police custody.
The protesters were originally given a protected route by the Tulsa Police Department to protest, according to Kunzweiler. However, the protesters decided to overrun the highway, which blocked vehicles from driving through the interstate.
As a Dodge pickup truck pulling a horse trailer attempted to drive through the crowd, multiple protesters began assaulting the truck. The truck then sped through the crowd.
Three people said they were injured during that incident.
“From what I was able to see and review from those reports, it’s clear what we’re looking at is that the family that was in that vehicle were the victims of a crime," Kunzweiler said at the time. "It was violent. It was unprovoked.”
“The kids cowered in the back seat because they feared for their lives,” one of the Republican sponsors of the bill, Rob Standridge, declared. “That’s what this bill is about.”
According to the bill, it would become a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine for protesters who block a public street.
Blocking roadways is a longtime tactic of nonviolent protesters dating back to even before the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
Democrats took issue with the bill, specifically with how the legislation’s language defined the word "riot," wondering aloud if “peaceful protesters” could be targeted.
Sen. Kevin Matthews, a Democrat from Tulsa and the chairman of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, said he was particularly troubled to see legislation targeting protesters but not the underlying issues of police brutality and systemic racism.
“In my community, people were bombed from the air, people had cannons shot into our churches, by some accounts 300 people dead and businesses burned down,” Matthews said, referring to the 1921 attack by a white mob on the city’s Black community. “And it was said my people were rioting when it was not true.”
The bill is now headed to the desk of Oklahoma’s Republican governor, Kevin Stitt, for approval.