FARGO - If the 41 Republicans in the North Dakota House of Representatives who voted for House Bill 1203 in this year's session haven't watched the horrifying video from Charlottesville, Va., they should, just on the off chance it might get them to engage their brains and think about what they tried to do.
The video shows a car plowing into a group of counterprotesters marching peacefully in a street in response to a gathering of white supremacists. The car tears down the street and slams into the back of another vehicle before backing up at high speed through stunned marchers. One woman was killed and 19 others were injured. The aftermath of this act of terrorism was bloody and heartbreaking, and it's all right there on video.
Have you seen it, Keith Kempenich?
Kempenich is the state representative from Bowman who was the lead sponsor of HB 1203, the gem that would've protected negligent drivers from legal consequences if they hit protesters who were blocking a road or highway. It was a direct response to the protests near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation over the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Kempenich and others, so enthusiastic to wrap themselves in the Constitution when it suits them, were willing to stifle the First Amendment right to peaceably assemble because those assembling were an inconvenience.
Kempenich's bill, he said, was meant to protect drivers who "unintentionally" hit protesters and shift responsibility for injuries or deaths to people who "made a conscious decision to put themselves in harm's way."
The problem was, legal experts said, the bill was written so vaguely it didn't make exceptions for intent or victims. It would have removed criminality and liability from careless drivers who struck pedestrians, whether they were a Native American protester in Morton County or a kid darting into a Fargo street.
Was it meant to protect drivers who intentionally smacked somebody walking in the road? To hear Kempenich tell it, no. But the intent to intimidate protesters was obvious. The message was this: If you use a public road to protest, you're taking life and limb into your own hands. The state of North Dakota can't guarantee protection from being hit by a car or pickup truck.
"If you stay off the roadway, this would never be an issue," Kempenich said.
It seemed like a lark, a wink-wink and a nudge-nudge meant to put unwanted protesters in their place. If somebody got run over, hey, no great loss. It was probably just one of those tree-hugging out-of-state hippies anyway.
It was as heartless as it was cynical. As if we needed reminding, the Charlottesville video shows the horrendous damage a 3,000-pound car can do to a 150-pound human body. The bill could've allowed a driver to walk away from killing a protester with their car.
HB 1203 was snuffed before it became law, with 58 representatives voting against it. But 41 voted for it. Forty-one legislators voted to decriminalize running over a protester.
Those lawmakers should watch the Charlottesville video, just to see what consequence their action nearly wrought. If they care.