Our Opinion: Holding motorists captive is no form of peaceful protest

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Supporters of a bill to shield drivers from civil liability if they strike protesters who are obstructing traffic had the right idea — they just used the wrong example.

House Bill 330 arose after demonstrators blocked a portion of Interstate 85 in Charlotte last September. Protests over the fatal police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott erupted in violent clashes between officers and demonstrators.

For motorists going about their business, it was a scary moment to be sure, but the blockade eventually came to a merciful end. Some drivers got an up-close-and-personal view of the unrest. For many, it was little more inconvenience than a normal traffic jam.

The mental image of a car plowing through protesters is jarring, and in order to show HB 330’s necessity to a skeptical public, bill sponsors should have recalled the LA riots in 1992, when an innocent man was dragged from the cab of his dump truck and beaten to within an inch of his life.

Reginald Denny had nothing to do with the brutality inflicted on Rodney King, the African-American man whose beating at the hands of police and the four officers’ subsequent acquittals sparked the riots. He was a trucker hauling 27 tons of sand and had the misfortune of driving into a war zone.

Rocks pelted his truck windows. Rioters shouted, directing him to stop. Denny stepped on the brakes and was savagely attacked, ultimately suffering 91 skull fractures and a seizure. He bears the scars from that vicious beating to this day.

That’s why drivers must be secure in the knowledge that they can proceed when angry crowds attempt to block their path.

Opponents of HB 330 say the bill seeks to intimidate demonstrators and deter peaceful protests that enjoy First Amendment protection. That’s simply disingenuous. Protesters can exercise their constitutional rights without placing themselves and innocent motorists in harm’s way.

Blocking a street, especially when there is no means of egress, is not a legitimate form of protest. It is trapping drivers between cars and agitated crowds, confining them against their will without legal justification. At the very least, it ought to meet the standard of false imprisonment, a common-law misdemeanor.

If motorists have reason to fear for their lives and safety, they are justified in hitting the gas pedal.

House Bill 330 merely seeks to prevent those who unlawfully block roads from bringing nuisance lawsuits against drivers or shaking down their insurance companies. We don’t fault drivers who refuse to be hemmed in like frightened cattle at the whim of civilian captors. Neither should our laws.

The legislation does not, as opponents contend, declare open season on pedestrians. It requires that drivers exercise “due care,” which we interpret to mean avoiding strikes when possible and using no more force than necessary to vacate the area.

Rep. Justin Burr, R-Stanly, filed the bill, which is co-sponsored by Rep. Jeff Collins, R-Nash. Rep. Susan Martin, R-Wilson, supported HB 330 while Rep. Jean Farmer-Butterfield, D-Wilson, voted against it.

The right to protest is sacred, but so is self-preservation. Balancing those rights with an acknowledgment that drivers can protect themselves from illegal confinement should not be controversial.