Olivia Juarez: The bill that would embolden white violence in Utah

Feeling alarm towards Black bodies is entrenched in America’s psyche.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Protesters black traffic on North Temple and State Street from the State Capitol, Wednesday, June 10, 2020.

Utah state Sen. David Hinkins’ Violence, Disorder, and Looting Enforcement Protection Act (Senate Bill 138) is headed for its final legislative debate.
This bill would increase the penalty for people criminally charged as rioters. In an alarming decree, the bill uses language proposed by Rep. Jon Hawkins in November. It provides that “a motor vehicle operator who unintentionally causes injury or death to an individual is not criminally or civilly liable for the injury or death,” when fleeing a riot.
This bill comes in the wake of the Utah Compact on Racial Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion a compact that Utah Coalition of La Raza undersigned alongside Hawkins and Gov. Spencer Cox.
The compact affirms that racism is a systemic issue; signatories pledge to “advance solutions to racial ills by listening and creating policies that provide equal opportunity and access to education, employment, housing, and healthcare,” among other actions.
But when protests for that very opportunity and access occur, SB138 would give members of the public discretion to label protestors as “rioters,” then indicates that it’s OK for a driver to run over protestors.
During what the Movement for Black Lives has called Freedom Summer, our community joined the nation in collective grief as Salt Lake City local Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal and Minnesotan George Floyd were murdered by police officers within two days of each other. The brutality of law enforcement led us to march en masse, even in mask, at the heat of the summer. So many people marched with art and song that roadways were blocked time and time again.
This bill is not about the safety of drivers caught in traffic obstructions, it’s about who is obstructing traffic.
Supporters assert the bill discourages criminal behavior at demonstrations, yet committee members agree that Utah protests were generally peaceful. Recall the individual who drove into a crowd of peaceful protestors, killing one, in Charlottesville at a 2017 demonstration. This is who SB138 protects: the driver. At least if the driver believes the protestors to be rioters, and claims that they feared for their lives while stuck in a riot.

SB138 amends the definition of a “riot” to mean three or more individuals who “engage in violent conduct, knowingly, or recklessly creating a substantial risk of causing public alarm.” As such, drivers have discretion to decide if a riot is happening based on feeling alarmed.
Racism manifests in many ways, including from the alarm that Black and brown bodies raise simply due to their dark melanin. Individually it’s seen in interpersonal microaggressions that assume criminal intent, such as holding your belongings tight as a Latino approaches because you are alarmed that you will be robbed. Feeling alarm towards Black bodies is entrenched in America’s psyche. People tend to perceive black men as more threatening than white men of the same size.
Should a driver encounter a protest spilling onto the streets as masses of black and brown bodies march around their vehicle, chanting “LAS VIDAS NEGRAS IMPORTAN—BLACK LIVES MATTER, they could feel alarmed and physically threatened as a psychological reaction. Should they act on that perception, it’s a violent, racist act.
SB138 puts Black & brown Utahns’ lives on the line. Killers would be protected in court, and families of protestors traumatized.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr famously said, “A riot is the language of the unheard … And so, in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay.”
Don’t delay this winter. SB138 must be stopped in its tracks and the promises of the Utah Compact must be acted on.

Olivia E. Juarez

Olivia E. Juarez is board secretary at Utah Coalition of La Raza (UCLR). UCLR advocates for Utah’s Latino communities, promotes social justice, and builds coalitions for the advancement of our families and our collective future.
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