The car becomes the weapon

TULSA, Okla. — On May 31, 2020, six days after the murder of George Floyd, a welding inspector named Thomas Ryan Knight went to his first protest, a Black Lives Matter demonstration.

It was hot but clear as he and his girlfriend joined the crowd, which marched through a part of the city that was the site of a racist massacre a century ago, and followed it onto Interstate-244 West, grinding traffic in all three lanes to a halt on the overpass of a highway that long ago cleaved this historic Black neighborhood in two.

Knight, a wry father of five who goes by Ryan and has the seal of the Choctaw nation tattooed on his right wrist, wanted to show his support for Black Americans, to be one more body in the sea of millions taking to the streets across the country to protest racism and police brutality.

But once he got up to the highway, Knight didn’t feel comfortable, decided it was time to go, and made his way toward the shoulder.

That’s where his memory ends.

While the drivers of the stopped vehicles seethed over the demonstration, a red pickup truck with a hulking, empty horse trailer pushed into the crowd as its driver placed a handgun on the dashboard, witnesses said, and protesters banged on its hood and threw things at the vehicle as it moved in. Knight can’t remember the screams, the crush of people, how it separated him from his girlfriend, and how, in the chaos, he was propelled over the highway’s edge, falling onto the grass below.

What Knight remembers is his time in the hospital, and how at first he couldn’t swallow, or breathe on his own, or move his fingers. He remembers learning his spinal cord was damaged, that he could not walk.

“As soon as I woke up, I was like, man, am I paralyzed?” said Knight, 34. “It was devastating.”

The episode left Knight in a wheelchair and cost him his job. But to Oklahoma prosecutors, neither he nor the handful of others who were injured in the chaos are victims of a crime. That July, while Knight was still at a rehabilitation center in Colorado, the local district attorney announced no charges would be filed against the driver, whose identity was kept secret, saying that the man was scared for his family in the vehicle and acted in self-defense and that protesters had unnecessarily blocked the road.

It lent the full weight of the law to the idea that the carnage on the highway was the fault of the protesters who stood there, and not the driver who plowed through them.

Nine months later, the state legislature passed a law granting drivers criminal and civil immunity if they “unintentionally” hit or kill a protester while “fleeing from a riot,” so long as they say it was necessary to protect themselves, citing the protest on I-244 as the catalyst for the law.

You read that right. Given the choice between defending the safety of pedestrians protesting a police murder and the drivers of the vehicles running them down, prosecutors and lawmakers here have reserved their concern for the drivers.

To those on the short end of this cold calculus, it feels like siding, during the 1960s civil rights protests, with Bull Connor’s firehoses over the Black children of Birmingham. Or with the cops with clubs over the brave, battered souls who traversed Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge.

A Globe review of the recent incidents found there have been scores of people hit, dozens of injuries, at least three deaths, but precious little justice, much less sympathy, for the demonstrators injured, killed, or just plain terrified. Yet Oklahoma and 15 other states have considered bills protecting drivers, not protesters, as these ramming incidents have proliferated.

The arc of history is bending, but it is fair to ask: Which way?

“They pick and choose who the law protects,” Knight said, as he sat in his living room, decorated with family photos and blue calla lilies on the wall, one day this summer. It is difficult for him to view the authorities’ response to his plight as anything other than a cover-up, enacted in broad daylight.

“I just don’t want what happened to me to happen to anybody else, regardless of what they believe in,” Knight said.

But around the country, in big cities and small towns, on rotaries and one-lane roads, highways and crosswalks, it already has.

Vehicle ramming. It is the term researchers use to describe incidents in which a car, truck, or motorcycle is turned by its driver into a weapon against people on the street.

It is a phenomenon they had witnessed over the years through much of the world. But last year, a peculiarly American variation of this practice became increasingly common, one in which demonstrations — especially the groundswell of antiracism protests spurred by Floyd’s killing — were the target.

The numbers alone make it stunning that more national notice hasn’t been given to this violent trend. Between Floyd’s death on May 25, 2020, and Sept. 30, 2021, vehicles drove into protests at least 139 times, according to an analysis completed by The Boston Globe, relying on researchers’ data, local news coverage, and the Globe’s own findings. In addition to the three deaths, vehicle rammings at protests have injured at least 100 people, the Globe found, yet in most cases the driver has gone unpunished: The Globe confirmed the existence of charges in just 65 of the cases — fewer than half of them — and found only four so far in which a driver was convicted of a felony.

This dataset includes incidents in which protesters were hit or narrowly missed by an oncoming vehicle. While it is likely the most comprehensive review of a problem that is not centrally tracked by the authorities, it may well be incomplete. Reliable information about arrests and criminal proceedings was not always available, and there may be additional rammings not reflected in the Globe’s list.

The Globe drew from research on rammings at demonstrations by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, a nonprofit research organization that tracks political violence, and the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University to create its tally, adding some cases and leaving out those which the Globe could not confirm or which did not fit its investigative criteria.

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