The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How a mother-in-law inspired a bill to protect drivers who accidentally run over protesters

Protesters against the Dakota Access pipeline stand on a burned-out truck in November. They had removed the vehicle from a long-closed bridge on a state highway near their camp. (James MacPherson/AP)

No matter where they stand on a $3.8 billion pipeline that would funnel oil through their state, North Dakota legislators have grown weary of a year of protests that have brought international scrutiny and a mounting police bill.

So they’ve drafted legislation in direct response to what’s happening near the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation. One bill would make it illegal for adults to wear masks. Another would let the state sue the federal government for the cost of policing the pipeline protests.

Now, a legislator wants to give motorists a pass if they happen to hit one of the protesters.

House Bill 1203 was sponsored by state Rep. Keith Kempenich, the owner of a trucking company. It would extend protections for drivers who accidentally injure or kill a person obstructing traffic on a public road or highway.

Kempenich, a Republican, told The Washington Post he’s in favor of the pipeline and the economic benefit it would bring to his state, but he “wants to see it done right.”

As the powers that be parse out the details, he said his bill is aimed at the aggressive tactics of some protesters who swarm passing vehicles and block traffic to get their message heard.

“This bill is not about oil. We ranch. We’re conservationists too,” he said. “But there’s a line between protesting and terrorism, and what we’re dealing with was terrorism out there. [Drivers] who were legally doing their business or just going home and all of a sudden they’re in a situation they don’t want to be in.”

North Dakota pipeline protesters rally in D.C.: ‘Water is sacred to us.’

One distraught driver in particular caught Kempenich’s attention — his 72-year-old mother-in-law. She was driving on Highway 1806 when suddenly she found herself swarmed by protesters, chanting, holding signs and, she told her legislator son-in-law, jumping in front of her car.

That’s where Kempenich got the idea for the legislation. He stressed that he is not trying to legalize vehicular manslaughter in the state of North Dakota. Drivers still have to do all they can to avoid protesters.

But the law says protesters have to do their part as well to stay on sidewalks and road shoulders. If they don’t, Kempenich told The Post, the law should favor law-abiding motorists.

“The first amendment gives people the right of freedom to assemble peacefully but it also gives the right for people to ignore that protest,” he said.

LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, a protest organizer, told the Associated Press that the legislation is a product “of people not communicating.”

“I have never seen so many people frightened in all my life,” she said of the anti-protest bills. “My recommendation for the legislature would be to pray harder. I think people are living on rumor and gossip more than they do the truth.”

For a year, a coalition of Native American tribes and environmentalists have protested the Dakota Access Pipeline, according to The Post’s Joe Heim.

Voices from Standing Rock: Six views from the standoff over the Dakota Access Pipeline

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other Native Americans believe the project, which would carry oil from North Dakota through South Dakota and Iowa to a shipping point in Illinois, threatens drinking water and Native American cultural sites, according to the AP. Texas-based developer Energy Transfer Partners disputes that.

The protesters have created a camp in North Dakota adjacent to the Standing Rock reservation and a mile from where the pipeline is planned to cross the Missouri River.

Protesters also built a roadblock on Highway 1806, preventing people from passing by for months. Law enforcement agencies built their own checkpoint, according to Bismark, N.D., NBC-affiliate KFYR.

In December, the Army Corps of Engineers denied a permit for the section of the pipeline that would go under the Missouri River, but President-elect Donald Trump has said he supports the completion of the pipeline, Heim reported, which means protests could go on indefinitely.

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