Weekend Read: Lawmakers must protect protesters — not the drivers who hit them

Marissa Blair was walking down Fourth Street when the car struck. Her fiancé, Marcus Martin, had just a split second to push her out of its path.

When she got up, all Blair could see of Martin was his bloodied baseball cap lying on the ground, she told The New York Times.

“It terrified me,” said Blair.

She found Martin, his leg broken. But the couple couldn’t find the friend who had been with them on Fourth Street — 32-year-old Heather Heyer.

Heyer died when a white supremacist rammed his car into counterprotesters who were demonstrating against the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. James Alex Fields is being held without bail on multiple charges, including second-degree murder.

But in six states – North Carolina, Florida, Texas, Tennessee, Rhode Island and North Dakota – Republican lawmakers have proposed measures that could shield drivers who hit protesters from civil liability.

“You can protest all you want, but you can’t protest up on a roadway,” said North Dakota Rep. Keith Kempenitch in January.

Historically, however, you can. After state troopers and a sheriff's posse beat marchers on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965, on a day that would become known as Bloody Sunday, a federal judge ruled on that very question.

“The law is clear,” wrote U.S. District Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr., “that the right to petition one’s government for the redress of grievances may be exercised in large groups. These rights may be exercised by marching, even along public highways.”

Four days after Johnson’s ruling, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led civil rights protesters from Selma to Montgomery in support of voting rights Just two years earlier, King had stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during another of our country’s most significant protests, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

“Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy,” said King.

Today, as thousands of Americans gather in the streets to make their voices heard in the Trump era, it is again time for their representatives to ensure that the promise of our democracy is reflected in our laws.

Lawmakers should applaud — not criminalize — their constituents’ civic engagement. They should guarantee protesters’ safety, not the safety of the drivers who hit them. They should not pass any measure that threatens to undermine free assembly, as at least 18 states have tried this year to do.

Monday marks 54 years since Dr. King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech to 250,000 protesters gathered on the Washington Mall. And it will have been 16 days since Heyer died while resisting the same white supremacy against which King fought.

Our representatives should honor both their memories by protecting a pillar of our democracy – the right to freely assemble in civic protest.

The Editors.

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