Running over protesters may soon be legal in North Dakota, if conservative lawmakers are successful in advancing legislation introduced last week.
House Bill Number 1203 (pdf) states that, “Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a driver of a motor vehicle who unintentionally causes injury or death to an individual obstructing vehicular traffic on a public road, street, or highway, is not guilty of an offense.”
The bill is slated to be heard by the North Dakota’s House Transportation Committee on Friday.
Rep. Keith Kempenich (R-Bowman), one of the bill’s co-sponsors, told the Bismarck Tribune last week, “[The roads are] not there for the protesters. They’re intentionally putting themselves in danger.”
It’s shocking to see legislation that allows for people to literally be killed for exercising their right to protest in a public space.
“It’s shifting the burden of proof from the motor vehicle driver to the pedestrian,” Kempenich said.
Tara Houska, an Indigenous water protector and attorney who has resided at the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) resistance camps since August, told NBC News that the bill was “a direct violation of our First Amendment rights.”
“It’s shocking to see legislation that allows for people to literally be killed for exercising their right to protest in a public space,” said Houska, who also serves as the national campaigns director for Honor the Earth, an Indigenous-focused environmental nonprofit.
Water protectors at times blocked roads leading to DAPL construction sites as part of the resistance to the pipeline. Blocking traffic is also an occasional tactic of various environmental and human rights movements.
Houska also criticized another bill in the legislative lineup that would require North Dakota’s attorney general to sue the federal government to recoup some of the cost of policing the months-long DAPL protests.
“These [bills] are meant to criminalize the protests with no real concern for constitutional law,” she said.
Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault II added, “The state claims they want to work closely with the tribe on repairing our relationship with them. Clearly that is not happening when legislation that impacts us is being drafted without consultation, consent, or even basic communication.”
Allison Renville, an activist from the Lakota nation, saw the bills as an insult to sovereign Native American communities, and expressed concern about the recent naming of Republican Sen. John Hoeven, a supporter of the DAPL pipeline and fossil fuel industry, as chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.
“This is a really scary time for Indian Country,” Renville told NBC News. “To have such an avid supporter of the oil industry who has consistently stated his support for extractive industry projects on Native lands named to the position as chairman is akin to stepping on our sovereignty.”