Florida Lawmaker Won't Apologize for Trying to Make It Easier to Run Over Protesters

Florida Lawmaker Won't Apologize for Trying to Make It Easier to Run Over Protesters
Photo by Karli Evans
Over the weekend, a white supremacist drove a silver Dodge Charger into a crowd of anti-racism protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia. The terror attack killed 32-year-old Virginia civil rights activist Heather Heyer and severely injured 19 others. Police have charged the driver, 20-year-old James Alex Fields Jr., with second-degree murder.

But if a bill proposed in both houses of the Florida Legislature had become law this year, it would have made it much harder for prosecutors to charge a similar attacker in the Sunshine State. And even after this past weekend's act of terrorism, representatives for one Florida lawmaker who proposed the bill — Panhandle Sen. George Gainer — refuse to apologize for the failed proposal.

Gainer's bill would have made it a second-degree misdemeanor to block a public road without a permit and then would have made it legal for drivers to "unintentionally" run over protesters standing in the street. State Rep. Jayer Williamson proposed the law in the state House; he did not return a call from New Times. Gainer then proposed a companion bill in the Senate in February. Via email, Gainer refused to back down from the idea post-Charlottesville.

"The bill I filed during the last legislative session would have made it a crime for protestors [sic] to block traffic," Gainer wrote. "Comparing that legislation with the reprehensible actions of the evil person in Virginia is quite frankly lazy reporting. By simply reading the two-page bill, it’s clear that my intent was to protect motorists who unintentionally cause injury or death to a protestor [sic] blocking the flow of traffic. A person who intentionally uses their vehicle to injure or kill another should be prosecuted under the full extent of the law."

But the bill would have clearly placed the burden of proof on the injured — or dead — party to show that someone who attacked him or her with a car did it "intentionally," which can be difficult to prove. Critics of the bill say that in cases like Charlottesville, such a law could leave room for an attacker to claim his actions were accidental unless he verbally announced his plans before driving into a group of people.

The bill came amid a wave of GOP proposals in 16 states that would have either criminalized peaceful protests or exempted drivers from running over demonstrators blocking public roads. In addition to the bill proposed in Florida, four other, nearly identical bills were proposed in North Dakota, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas.

New Times asked both Gainer and legislative aides in his office how the bill would have prevented terrorists from driving into crowds and claiming the attack was unintentional. No one has yet offered a specific response.

Andrea Gainey, a legislative aide in Gainer's office, said the bill and the attack in Charlottesville were "completely unrelated."

"This weekend was a terrorist attack," Gainey said. "There was a clear intent that he plowed into a group of people. I hope that would always be illegal. This bill created no new statutory requirements. Everything in this bill was already on the books. This would have just put them under one heading."

Then why propose the measure if it didn't change existing law? Gainey declined to answer.

On March 2, Gainer told WUFT, North Central Florida's PBS affiliate, that the bill was written in response to anti-Trump protests in Miami and Tampa, where demonstrators shut down highways including I-95 and the MacArthur Causeway. Though Gainer said protesters have "every right" to express their views, he also claimed the demonstrators ran into the street "attacking" cars and trying to get hit.

“They should have every right in the world to protest the things they disagree with,” Gainer said. “But they don’t have the right to randomly go out into the interstates and attack the cars, beat on the windshields, jump up on the hoods, and act like they’ve been hit. In some cases, they set themselves up to be hit.”

(New Times covered those protests in Miami and filmed the demonstrators on the highway and did not see any proof of Gainer's claims that they attacked cars.)

Gainer tweeted his statement to New Times this afternoon. Williamson, meanwhile, has not said a thing.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.