‘It can protect vigilantes and hate crime committers’: Activist speaks out against proposed Tennessee anti-riot law

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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Proposed Tennessee legislation could have an impact on future protests.

After a summer of protests following the murder of George Floyd, at least 90 bills across 35 states have been introduced by Republican lawmakers to crack down on demonstrations. A non-profit called the US Protest Law Tracker, has been tracking each bill.

Tennessee currently has two pending pieces of legislation that addresses protesting in one aspect or another.

One of those, is House Bill 513.

State Representative Ron Gant (R – Rossville) introduced the bill. He told members of the Tennessee House Criminal Justice Committee in March that this legislation would prevent dangerous riots.

“This, in my opinion brings or let’s Tennessee be known as if Tennessee is going to be targeted, this creates a deterrent, that sends a strong message that you know in Tennessee, we’re not going to tolerate this type of activity,” he testified.

The bill would allow for the following:

  • It would increase the penalty for blocking a roadway during a “riot” from a misdemeanor to a felony.
  • It would also grant immunity to a person operating a motor vehicle who is exercising due care and unintentionally causes injury or death to another person who is violating the abovementioned.
  • It would also make throwing an object at another person during a riot a misdemeanor; and if that object causes bodily harm, that person could face a felony.
  • Additionally, this bill creates the offense of a riot participant intentionally intimidating or harassing someone not participating in the riot.

In September 2020, Victoria Hewlett witnessed a protester get run over by a vehicle in Downtown Johnson City. She urges the legislature to not support HB513.

“I’m very concerned about having witnessed a protester get hit by a car I’m very concerned about that particular piece, because, you know, we did have a video of that event we snapped it right before it happened but I saw the whole thing, and that was very clearly somebody who intentionally drove into a crosswalk which had protesters into it, and then intentionally hit the gas and hit somebody. But my understanding is that person is now claiming self-defense and of course, somebody is going to defend themselves in court, however they can,” she explained.

She thinks granting immunity to anyone who unintentionally hits a pedestrian is still unjustifiable.

“I think that this bill and that language around, you know, granting immunity, really it just protects that it can protect vigilantes and people who are really just committing a hate crime against a group because they’re speaking up about something that they might disagree with, I think that’s very dangerous,” Hewlett said.

The chairman of the Tennessee House Criminal Justice Committee, Rep. Michael Curcio (R – Dickson) argued in March that the bill was not a free-for-all for anyone to simply run over protesters.

Hewlett disagrees, due to the political affiliations of both Gant and Curcio.

“I do think, given the political persuasion, of the people presenting the bill. I do think it’s, it really is targeted towards the BLM Movement,” she explained.

She added all of the protests in Johnson City, and in Tennessee at large, were largely peaceful, and that this bill would be unnecessary, and would signify government overreach.

“Please do not do, do not support this bill because it can protect vigilantes and hate crime committers. Just as I saw happen. And also, it’s it’s stifling of freedom of speech, you know, we need to be able to have this freedom to work through these difficult issues in our country right now, and having the state have that much control over our freedom of expression is just wrong and not part of the tradition of this country,” she said.

What’s next? Money, money, money.

The next phase for this legislation will be to go through the Finance, Ways, and Means Subcommittee on Monday.

State Rep. David Hawk (R – Greeneville) is a member of that committee and told News Channel 11 that he will be digging deeper into the finer details of the bill to take into consideration concerns like Hewlett’s.

“It is not my legislation so I’m still learning and we’ll be learning over the weekend about the legislation as we go back up back in session on Monday, so I’m still learning about the bill as well,” Hawk explained. “We don’t want any ill intent to create harm to anyone who is protesting or anyone who is just a innocent bystander as well. So we’re trying to cover both issues. At the same time, and ultimately protect both those folks who are protesting, as well as those who are innocent and just coming and going on that roadway.”

Hawk explained that in Tennessee, it is already against the law to protest in a roadway, and it’s already illegal to obstruct traffic because emergency personnel need to get from one place to another.

But when it comes to the immunity factor of drivers hitting rioters, Hawk said he wants to take a look at “intent.”

“So that’s going to be part of the discussion we’re going to have over the next, over the next few days and see if it’s worth worthy to rise to the level, both increasing the penalties for those who protests, as well as giving immunity to those it should an accident occur or something more intentional occurs beyond that acts, It will, we’ll have a discussion as well,” he said.

View the full discussion and vote on HB513 in the Tennessee House Criminal Justice Committee in March:

Follow News Channel 11’s Bianca Marais on Facebook and Twitter for news updates.

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