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Tampa Bay drivers have run into protesters. Why haven’t they been arrested?

Lawyers say the details can be complicated, but generally, motorists can't hit protesters just because they're in the road. It's happened all across the country.

TAMPA — Jae Passmore called for a moment of silence. It was June 27, six days after a pickup truck driver swore at protesters demonstrating at a Hyde Park Village intersection, accelerated over a median and struck the community organizer.

Passmore was hospitalized. The driver has not been arrested.

On the 27th, she led demonstrators again in Hyde Park — in a wheelchair, her injured right ankle in a boot. She wore sunglasses to alleviate the constant headaches from her concussion.

She asked them to pause for a minute on S Albany Avenue, video from that day showed. For a few seconds, all was quiet. Then protesters’ cursing broke the silence.

Jae Passmore speaks at a protester press conference held across the street from the Tampa Police Department Headquarters on Tuesday, June 30, 2020 in Tampa. Passmore and others also gathered on the 27th to demand justice for Jason Stuart Flores who was charged with a felony and three misdemeanors after clinging to a car. [ JONAH HINEBAUGH | Times ]

A black Volkswagen was nosing through the demonstration.

The driver slowly moved up to a small group, stopped, then continued forward. The sedan ended up speeding off with the protester clinging to the hood, the video showed.

When officers caught up to the vehicle, the driver was allowed to leave — but the injured protester was arrested.

During a June 27 protest march in Tampa, a Volkswagen sedan nudged into the crowd and bumped Jason Stuart Flores, who wound up on the car's hood as it sped away. After the car stopped, Flores was arrested. The driver of the car has not been arrested or publicly identified. [ Restorative Justice Coalition ]
Related: Pickup driver curses, slams into protest leader at Hyde Park Village demonstration

Under Florida law, drivers and pedestrians share the burden of staying out of each other’s way. But when pedestrians are protesters, Tampa Bay law enforcement has often faulted those on two feet.

The Tampa Police Department said both incidents remain under investigation. There have also been close calls in St. Petersburg, where police have started ticketing protesters. Both cities say they do not plan to change their approach to policing protesters. A St. Petersburg police spokeswoman said “we have not encountered incidents where motorists have been at fault.”

But incidents of motorists driving into protesters have become increasingly common over the past five years, said a terrorism researcher who’s been tracking cases. He has recorded at least 75 incidents across the nation over the past two months.

What motivated drivers in these incidents — anger, confusion, fear — is unknown. But ramming protesters has emerged as a tactic of right-wing extremists, such as white supremacists, who have spread the perception that drivers have the right to run over demonstrators.

Passmore says she has little faith that either driver, neither of whom has been publicly named by police, will face sanctions. She criticized city officials for failing to even ask drivers not to drive through demonstrations.

“How much does it take to say, we are a city that will not condone people running into protests?” she told the Tampa Bay Times. “The inaction is cultivating a powder keg of epic proportions.”

• • •

Tensions between protesters and drivers have run high throughout the Black Lives Matter protests, now approaching their third month across the U.S.

Locally, the two June incidents in Tampa are the most high-profile, but they’re not the only ones. On June 13, two pick-up drivers had ugly encounters with afternoon marchers in St. Petersburg. One driver with large Donald Trump stickers on his side windows threatened to “run you the f--k over” because protesters blocked his path; minutes later, a different pickup truck knocked several people out of its way as it slowly drove through the marchers.

Then, on June 17, a motorcyclist drove into a St. Petersburg march, stopped and revved his engine. He wound up on the ground after a protester pulled on his backpack. On July 4, two people on a motorcycle drove into a crowd, then got off and argued with the protesters. A St. Petersburg police spokeswoman said none of those incidents merited arrest.

When 100 or so protesters blocked busy Dale Mabry Highway N on the Fourth of July, Tampa officers swooped in and arrested a handful. But protesters complained that three vehicles drove through their ranks that day. One was captured on video posted to Twitter: A Ford sedan drove onto the shoulder of the road to get around blocked traffic, then went through protesters in the crosswalk and sped through those standing in the intersection. Chants of “No peace, no peace” were replaced by shouts of “Watch out!”

No protesters were injured, and a Tampa police spokeswoman said the video was investigated, but the driver was not arrested.

In the June 27 incident, protester Jason Stuart Flores, who wound up on the Volkswagen’s hood, faces four charges, including felony criminal mischief. Protesters have continued to criticize the decision of police to arrest Flores and let the driver go. They say social media videos contradict the police account of the incident: That the driver was trying to turn around and that, after he stopped, protesters began to hit and kick his car, and that Flores jumped onto the hood to hit and break the windshield.

Related: Hyde Park protesters point to videos, say police got it wrong in arrest report

Flores, a member of the Florida Indigenous Rights and Environmental Equality activist group, couldn’t be reached for comment this week. He was participating in spiritual practices in an effort to process the trauma of the incident, said Alicia Norris, who is also a member of the group.

She said Flores had gone to be a peaceful presence at the demonstration “in prayer and ceremony.” She said that, as far as she knows, officers have not been in touch with Flores or other witnesses since the incident. Nor does he believe the police will fully investigate the incident, she said, which has instead continued to erode trust between the police and local Indigenous people.

“We feel that we are not protected at all, and that we are targeted,” Norris said, “and that the police, if they see a brown-skinned person, then they do nothing.”

Police action has varied elsewhere in Florida. A 27-year-old man was arrested Feb. 8 in Jacksonville after police said he intentionally drove a van through a Republican Party voter registration tent. Officers detained a pickup truck driver in Tallahassee after he drove through a crowd of protesters May 30, but prosecutors declined to file charges. The same day, in Gainesville, 64-year-old William John Connelly was arrested after police said he drove his SUV into a crowd, pulled out a gun and threatened to shoot demonstrators.

And on June 7 in Pensacola, an SUV driver forced his way through a line of protesters, knocked one onto his hood and carried him across all three miles of the Pensacola Bay Bridge. The protester, Jason Uphaus, was arrested on charges of criminal mischief and disorderly conduct — police said he damaged a side mirror — but the driver, Nathan Matusz, was not charged.

Uphaus’ attorney, Christopher Klotz, has invoked Florida’s stand-your-ground defense, arguing that his client defended himself by laying on the hood rather than risk falling and being run over. The driver acted with “a degree of vigilantism,” Klotz said, when it was his responsibility to use good judgment.

“If somebody’s standing in the doorway and you wanna get in the doorway, can you use another door?” the attorney said. “Do you ask them politely to move? Or do you just punch them in the face?”

• • •

Sometimes, collisions with protesters are deliberate acts of terror.

On Aug. 12, 2017, a 20-year-old white supremacist named James Alex Fields Jr. drove his car into a crowd of protesters in Charlottesville, Va., injuring at least 19 people and killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Fields would be sentenced to life in prison for committing perhaps the most well-known car attack on protesters in the U.S.

Incidents involving vehicles have risen sharply during protests in the wake of the May 25 killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, according to Ari Weil. A researcher at the Chicago Project on Security and Threats, Weil has been tallying the incidents on his own time.

Weil explored the subject for his master’s thesis, finding that vehicle attacks became increasingly popular in the 2010s among western jihadists, Palestinian nationalists and, in the U.S. and Europe, the far right. He said 2015 marked a turning point for those attacks in the U.S., which happened during Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Mo., and the Dakota Access Pipeline protests.

“(Vehicle ramming) really emerges in the U.S. as kind of a distinctly anti-protest event,” Weil said. “The protesters are coming out to block streets as a disruptive tacic, and people are driving through them.”

When Weil started collecting data about vehicle-versus-protester incidents during the current wave of protests, he was “really surprised to see this many.” Not all have been attacks, he said — some were caused by taking a wrong turn. In many cases, he said driver intent wasn’t publicly known.

But Weil said he’s classified 27 of the 75 incidents as being driven by “malicious intent,” based on the drivers’ reported affiliations with neo-Nazi or white supremacist groups, use of threats or slurs during the incident, or decisions to turn and hit protesters multiple times.

While some of these attacks may have been planned, Weil said, others appear to be spontaneous decisions. Some are driven by overt racism, he said, while in other cases motorists seemed upset that their routes were blocked.

The tactic is bolstered by a strain of online memes — such as #runthemover and “all lives splatter” — that uses humor to legitimize violence against protesters, Weil said. Fields, the Charlottesville attacker, shared some of these memes on Instagram before the attack.

Memes and related online discourse portrays protesters as an inconvenience, Weil said, suggesting they’ve surrendered their rights when they block a road. Since protests began two months ago, at least two demonstrators have died after being hit by vehicles: A 55-year-old in Bakersfield, Calif., and a 24-year-old in Seattle, Wash.

• • •

In reality, under Florida law, drivers aren’t allowed to run over protesters who march into an intersection or block a street. That is true even if they block a road without a permit, which makes it illegal in Florida.

In 2017, legislators in several states introduced bills that would protect drivers who hurt or kill protesters with their vehicles. In Florida, a bill to shield drivers from liability when they unintentionally hit or killed protesters was sponsored by state Sen. George Gainer, R-Panama City, and backed by the Florida State Fraternal Order of Police. It died in committee. None of the bills in other states passed, either.

Lawyers say they can give little overarching advice about how the law applies to incidents involving protesters and motorists.

“The bottom line is, people need to be respectful of each other,” said Stetson University College of Law criminal law professor Susan Rozelle. “It is illegal to plow your car into a crowd of people. Similarly, it is illegal as a pedestrian to run up to the car, hit it, jump up on it, cause damage.”

In general, it is against the law to hit somebody, whether with a body part or an object such as a car, Rozelle said. But drivers also have the right to move unimpeded.

It’s the details that make things complicated. Did the driver intend to hit or scare protesters? Could they have taken an alternate route? Did the driver and protesters try to talk it out? Did the protesters hit or jump onto the car? Did demonstrators surround the vehicle, trapping the driver?

From a civil law perspective, neither party has unfettered rights, said Tampa personal injury attorney John Bales. Both parties have responsibilities — pedestrians to stay out of the street if a sidewalk is available, and motorists to avoid striking pedestrians.

“On the one hand, a motorist cannot simply crash into a pedestrian because the pedestrian is in the road if there is a reasonable way to avoid the accident,” he said in an email to the Times. “However, if the driver cannot reasonably avoid the condition created by the pedestrian, then it is possible that the majority of the liability may be on the pedestrian.”

From a criminal law perspective, Rozelle gave the example of a child darting out into a street after a ball. A vehicle coming down the road may technically have the right of way, she said, but the driver still has a responsibility to brake or swerve.

If the driver instead accelerates, “nobody cares that the kid shouldn’t have been in the street,” she said, adding:

“The fact that somebody else is committing a crime doesn’t give you permission to commit crimes, too.”

• • •

A volunteer motions with the peace sign at stopped cars while the procession crosses the intersection at 16th Street and First Avenue North during a march through the city in protest of police brutality after the death of George Floyd, on Friday, June 12, 2020 in St. Petersburg. Police have since said they will now issue tickets and fines for protesters who block traffic. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Earlier this month, the St. Petersburg Police Department announced that it would start ticketing and fining protesters who block traffic. The department said that decision was made after recent national incidents highlighted “the importance of following the law and staying clear of traffic.”

Seven protesters had been cited for blocking traffic as of July 17, police spokeswoman Yolanda Fernandez said. At a June 11 protest, one person was arrested for trying to “evade” officers ticketing her, police said, and another was charged with trying to “interfere” with her arrest.

St. Petersburg’s police spokeswoman said in an email that “motorists have been extremely accommodating and patient with protesters unlawfully blocking the right- of- way, jumping on and damaging stopped cars, and intimidating drivers.” Fernandez added: “As it relates to traffic laws, motorists have the right of way when protesters refuse to use pedestrian sidewalks and unlawfully block intersections, so I’m not sure what motorist traffic laws you’re referring to that we could enforce.”

Asked what can be done to protect protesters from angry drivers, or driving attacks, she said: “the best way to prevent such an attack is for protesters to stay on sidewalks and use traffic signals to cross roadways.”

Tampa police spokeswoman Jamel Laneè, in response to similar questions, denied that the agency was focusing its energies on protesters rather than motorists. She said in earlier protests, officers “were escorting protesters around the city for their safety,” but “some organizers no longer wanted our help.”

She added that the agency tried to investigate all cases of motorists driving through crowds, but that “when officers have approached protesters about what happened in some cases, they were uncooperative.”

Passmore said she has little faith in the Tampa police investigation into the driver who hit her on June 21. She said the officers who came to the scene declined to take witness statements. When officers followed up with her, they asked her to take charge of collecting videos capturing the incident — “putting the onus on me.”

Related: Protesters accuse Tampa officers of harassment, renew call for police chief to be fired

Laneè said officers did interview witnesses and collected video from the scene.

A month after the incident, Passmore’s ankle has healed, but she still has trouble getting around. The constant headaches are down to one or two per day, she said, and she no longer has to wear sunglasses at all hours. Still, she finds it difficult to stare at a computer screen.

She has trouble sleeping because of back and hip pain, she said, and she can’t play with her 5-year-old in the back yard.

When she wakes from the nightmares, Passmore said, she thinks for a moment that she’s back in the street where the truck hit her. In public, she’s always looking over her shoulder. She glances twice at every red truck, wondering if it’s the one that hit her. Without an arrest, she said, she sees no path back to normalcy.

“The same thing I said before I got hit is, I’m ready to die for what I believe in,” she said. “That doesn’t mean I want to die.”

• • •

Coverage of local and national protests from the Tampa Bay Times

HOW TO SUPPORT: Whether you’re protesting or staying inside, here are ways to educate yourself and support black-owned businesses.

WHAT PROTESTERS WANT: Protesters explain what changes would make them feel like the movement is successful.

WHAT ARE NON-LETHAL AND LESS-LETHAL WEAPONS? A guide to what’s used in local and national protests.

WHAT ARE ARRESTED PROTESTERS CHARGED WITH? About half the charges filed have included unlawful assembly.

CAN YOU BE FIRED FOR PROTESTING? In Florida, you can. Learn more.

HEADING TO A PROTEST? How to protect eyes from teargas, pepper spray and rubber bullets.