So much of the American myth is built on cars. The linking of American exceptionalism and individualism to the postwar boom of personal transportation in the 1950s isn’t a new idea, but it’s a useful one to keep in mind when thinking about how the right has internalized, and weaponized, this myth to literally run over protesters in the streets over 66 times since George Floyd was killed by police at the end of May.
Occupying roadways is a common, effective strategy of protest. It allows demonstrators to take up physical space while causing a mild inconvenience to drivers attempting to use those spaces — often on publicly funded and maintained roads — and forcing them to at least acknowledge that the protesters are there. It also makes a certain type of person completely lose their mind. The right wing is in a permanent, collective state of road rage, an endless hive mind of people screaming obscenities at their windshield in a traffic jam. I have lost track of how many Facebook posts I have seen from conservatives I knew in high school who believe that impeding the flow of traffic is a capital offense. If the First Amendment clashes with every American’s right to Drive Big Truck, the right has made it very clear which one has gotta go.
Some of this is understandable, as human nature has a vindictive, reactionary streak. I too have felt murderous rage over comparatively mild provocations before, like when my former neighbor who owned a sport motorcycle revved his engine outside of my ground floor bedroom window at 4 a.m. But fortunately for both of us, both my sense of a moral social contract and general legislation against “murder” kept me from doing anything about it. In Florida, however, these conditions are being challenged.
On Monday, Governor Ron DeSantis announced a slapdash package of legislation titled the Combatting Violence, Disorder, Looting and Law Enforcement Protection Act. It contains a jumble of clauses that boil down to some very simple ways to make sure it is much easier for both the state and private citizens to kill people exercising their right to protest the state and private citizens killing people.
The proposed legislation does two things. First, it drastically increases the power police forces and district attorneys have to arrest and prosecute protesters. It also provides a tailor-made defense for private citizens to get away with murdering protesters with their cars. As the Daily Beast noted, conservative lawmakers have already tried to indemnify drivers for vehicular murder in the past, after the killing of Heather Heyer by white nationalists in Charlottesville. But DeSantis’ open support for such legislation is the highest-profile push for it so far, and could easily set a precedent for other states to pass similar laws.
“If you know that a ton of bricks will rain down on you, then I think people will think twice about engaging in this type of conduct,” DeSantis said at a press conference in Tampa on Monday.
This could put an enormous, outsize amount of power in the hands of district attorneys across the country. DAs have already played a large role in the shape of protests thus far, largely in their decisions about whether or not to prosecute the thousands of protesters rounded up en masse for low-level misdemeanors. DAs in Oregon, New York, Florida, and other states have declined to prosecute these offenses. In other cases, conservative leaders and prosecutors have pushed for felony charges for common acts of protest. What DeSantis’s proposal would do is then put murder on that list, creating conditions where a neo-Nazi killer like James Fields has legal standing for claiming self-defense.
You can see where this goes, and already has gone. Kyle Rittenhouse, who shot three and killed two in Kenosha, Wisconsin in August, will surely lean on self-defense in his murder trial. With a good lawyer and a sympathetic DA, getting away with murder will be even easier. And the fact that these battles will often play out in state or local jurisdictions means we could see policies like DeSantis’ adopted as a form of fascist federalism, with red-state legislatures creating pockets where dissent becomes even more deadly than it already is.
It’s clear who these policies are meant to benefit, and what they will enable. It’s also clear who they will kill.
Photo via Flickr/ Barry Stock