How a combination of legislative overreach and an enabled white nationalist movement could spell disaster for North Carolina

This past weekend’s violence in Charlottesville, VA prompted outrage across the political spectrum after three were killed and dozens injured at a white nationalist rally and counter-protest. The rally, held at a park home to a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and on the grounds of the University of Virginia, turned deadly when a terrorist drove his car into a crowd protesting the white nationalists. Both of North Carolina’s senators condemned the violence.

North Carolina, however, is considerably vulnerable to the same kind of attacks witnessed in its neighboring state due to recent legislation.

Confederate monuments across the state gained blanket protection from a 2015 law signed into place by then Governor Pat McCrory. The”Historic Artifact Management and Patriotism Act,” which states that historic monuments cannot be removed without the express permission of the state’s historical commission, came after heightened protests that year calling for the removal of “Silent Sam,” a statue of a Confederate soldier on the campus of UNC Chapel Hill.

That the protests occurred at the state’s flagship public university wasn’t lost on the Republican-majority legislature, which has sharply focused on a perceived liberal bias among faculty there.

silent sam

“Silent Sam” — photo via Raleigh News & Observer

The 2017 legislative session brought about a bill aimed to quell that bias; the bill was voted into law by a Republican super majority, setting into place bans on free speech zones at state campuses and prohibitions preventing college administrators from canceling controversial speakers and events. It also calls for punishments for any student who interrupts or shouts down a speaker.

Protecting Confederate monuments and clearing the way for controversial speakers at university campuses more than creates a tinderbox for the kind of violence witnessed so recently in Charlottesville. But the state legislature went a step further this spring, introducing a bill that would make it legal for North Carolina drivers to “plow their cars through protesters” blocking the road.

More specifically (and pardoning the quote above, which copies Fox News’ hyperbole), the proposed bill would protect drivers from civil liability should they strike a protester who is illegally blocking a road.

Following the violence in Virginia, where Charlottesville paralegal Heather Heyer was struck down by a vehicle driven by a white nationalist, Republicans report they have no plans to push the bill forward, stalling legislation that would all but hand the keys to the next terrorist. 

car attack

The Charlottesville terrorism attack. Ryan Kelly photo.

It’s important to note that each of these pieces of legislation was borne from a gut-level reaction to national headlines. The monument protection bill was rushed through after white nationalist Dylan Roof massacred nine parishioners in a Charleston, SC church–prompting our neighbor to rescind its political support of the Confederate flag and sparking renewed criticism of Confederate memorials and monuments.

The campus free speech legislation followed riots and protests over controversial speakers at Middlebury, UC Berkeley, and UCLA. And the bill protecting drivers who hit protestors stemmed from violence in Charlotte, where in 2016 crowds protesting the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott flooded onto highways and interstates, rioting and looting.

All of that is to say the events sparking these bills shouldn’t go without careful examination and consideration.

However, as is undeniably proven by common sense, each of these bills is a legislative canon aimed at far less substantial issues. They demonstrate overreach by the state, and they exceed practical measures (including existing law) that should suffice.

Richard Spencer, the white nationalist behind the Charlottesville fiasco, is planning a nationwide tour of college campuses. (Texas A&M today cancelled his planned rally in September.) It’s only a matter of time before Spencer or another white nationalist or terrorist group comes to North Carolina to rally around a Confederate memorial–a rally that cannot be canceled, a rally against which counter-protesting students could be punished.

A tinderbox waiting for a spark–and put into place by overzealous legislation–leaving us North Carolinians with fewer means to prevent another tragedy from happening.