January 16, 2017
Morton County, N.D. may be some 1,600 miles from Philadelphia, but a story I saw about protests there made me recoil on Sunday.
It wasn’t the protests themselves that rankled me. Rather, it was the headline of a story about reaction to the people who protested the Dakota Access Pipeline proposal.
Here’s the headline: “Running over protesters on roadways could soon be legal in North Dakota.” And here’s the initial reaction: “Are you f------ kidding me?”
Alas, the headline wasn’t kidding me.
In fact, a state representative by the name of Keith Kempenich – rancher, crop adjuster and trucking-company owner – proudly shifted into potential-victim shaming mode when the Bismarck Tribune newspaper asked what the heck he was doing.
“It’s shifting the burden of proof from the motor vehicle driver to the pedestrian,” said Kempenich, of North Dakota House Bill 1203. “(Roads) are not there for the protesters. They’re intentionally putting themselves in danger.”
He hearkened back to the time when his mother-in-law happened upon a pipeline protest and someone jumped in front of her car waving a sign. He worried about the repercussions if she “punched the accelerator rather than the brakes.”
Introduced last week, the bill is up for a House Transportation Committee hearing at 9 a.m. Friday, aka the day when droves of protesters will flock to the nation’s capital on the occasion of President-elect Donald J. Trump’s inauguration.
Should it pass, it’ll extend a get-out-of-jail-free card to anybody who doesn’t agree with protesters’ First Amendment rights to be heard. That's downright dangerous.
Kempenech, who is also pushing legislation that would “require the state attorney general to sue the federal government to help cover costs for policing a protest,” didn’t respond to an email seeking comment on Monday. (He was probably off on a federal holiday to honor a civic-rights leader who led protests and was ultimately assassinated.)
I’ve never been to Standing Rock Indian Reservation, so I can’t say with any certainty what the protest scene was like there. As in, were protesters flipping people's cars over for laughs? Suffice it to say, there were conflicts between police and protesters to the point that it gave a local sheriff scary dreams. Aw.
What I do know, regardless of any conflicts associated with the protests, is that it is reprehensible to strike someone with a two-ton killing machine and then have the protections of lax or non-existent laws to help you elude justice (i.e., how hit-and-run laws all but encourage drunk drivers to flee the scene and, if they’re feeling humane, turn themselves in once their BAC returns to a legal reading.)
Kempenech’s master plan would enable drivers who strike pedestrian protesters to just say, “Sorry, officer, I meant to hit the brakes, but I punched the accelerator instead; I would never hit somebody intentionally” before likely getting away with assault (at best) or vehicular homicide (at worst).
It is an absurd piece of legislation that runs counter to everything the justice system is supposed to accomplish. To "shift the burden" from driver to pedestrian is akin to blaming someone for being in a bullet's path.
YahNé Ndgo, a Germantown resident who served as a spokeswoman for the Bernie or Bust movement, spent three weeks protesting at Standing Rock late last year. I gave her a call on Monday to talk about this atrocious excuse for governance.
Ndgo, who will speak at protests on Washington, D.C. on Friday, said the mood and tone of the protesters' camp, for the most part, spurned aggression.
The showdown that garnered the most national attention – it featured water hoses, tear gas and rubber bullets from authorities – all started, she said, when protesters tried to move a barrier that blocked off the primary road in and out of the camp. Their protests involved "going to places to pray," she said.
"There were some people who were a little more inclined to aggressive (approaches), but that manifested itself in discussions, not actions," Ndgo said. The confrontations she saw between authorities and protesters featured a lot of "'We love you' and 'why are you doing this?' conversations. There was not a lot of aggression and negativity. The spirit of the camp is altruistic."
It was important to get a read on the mood of the camp so as to contrast to the patent aggression of Kempenich's proposal.
"Most of the aggression is coming from the community and some of the people angry at the indigenous protesters are the same people who refused the pipeline in their own community," she said. "It's interesting that they're protesting something you never had to protest yourself."
Ndgo said the prospect of that proposal passing is "discouraging and disappointing" particularly because protesters embraced a non-confrontational ethos for the most part. She does, however, see such actions as last-ditch efforts of those who see their power slipping away.
"It's like their 'Hail Mary' moment, trying to do whatever they can to turn the tide," she said. "A massive amount of people are waking up to injustice and inequity intrinsic in our national landscape and social culture. Even though terrible things are happening, there is a revolutionary movement in place. The more aggressive they get, the more people can see it's too late for them."
This proposed legislation is not normal, and any elected official in a civilized society would be wise to see it for what it is: Dangerously ill-advised.