He Ran Over Black Lives Matter Protesters—but Apparently That’s Not a Crime

Jared Benjamin Lafer, who last September drove his SUV through a tiny assemblage of Black Lives Matter protesters in Johnson City, Tennessee, and then sped away — leaving behind a man with a concussion, brain bleed, and two broken legs — will face no charges.

On Monday, a Tennessee grand jury returned a “no true” bill — a declaration by jurors that there was not enough evidence to indict the 27-year-old even after a judge had reduced the charges against him from aggravated assault, a Class C felony, to reckless aggravated assault, a Class D felony. Among the materials that apparently left the grand jurors unmoved was cellphone video documenting Lafer rolling over the protester with his truck, narrowly missing the protester’s dog, and almost striking a second person who jumped out of the car’s unswerving path before it accelerated away from the scene.

The same footage made the rounds on social media last year as Tennessee police conducted a two-day manhunt for the hit-and-run driver, who they identified as Lafer after witnesses identified his out-of-state licence plate number. Lafer never returned to the scene to check on his victim, but instead drove to his home state of North Carolina, hired a lawyer to talk with the cops on the case, and turned himself in two days after committing the crime.

By the time of the arrest, Lafer’s earlier social media posts joking about running over protesters had been scrubbed from the internet, preserved only in screengrabs captured by a local progressive news site.

Victoria Hewlett, who was sitting in a parked car with her husband at an intersection just yards from the scene, told The Daily Beast that protesters were crossing the road in a pattern consistent with the walk signal. She says that Lafer pulled up behind her car, then swerved around her vehicle “pretty aggressively,” before rounding the corner and driving “directly into where the protesters were in the crosswalk.” She says — and Jonathan Bowers, Lafer’s primary victim, also states in a hospital-bed affidavit and subsequent testimony — that Lafer rolled slowly, without breaking, into the intersection, “bumped” him with his truck, and then suddenly “floored” the vehicle, running him over and leaving him unconscious in the road.

Bowers, Hewlett recalls, regained consciousness shortly thereafter, “screaming in pain” and asking about his dog. Hewlett and her husband, who had already begun filming, caught the scene and immediate aftermath on camera. She told me she saw no one beating on or otherwise attacking Lafer’s car, which comports with what’s captured on video.

“The only thing that had occurred” before Lafler ran over Bowers, Hewlett recalls, was that protesters “kind of looked at him like, what the fuck? That’s where he apparently feels threatened. After he drives into people and they’re stunned and throwing their hands up, like what are you doing, that’s what he’s trying to construe as being in danger,” Hewlett told me.

This issue of safety, Lafer’s in particular, is where defense lawyers centered their argument, claiming that Lafer “found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, faced with what he perceived as a dangerous condition, dangerous situation,” according to defense attorney Mac Meade. “His entire family, his wife and his three young kids under the age of six were all in the car with him. And he did what he felt was necessary to get out of a situation that he felt was dangerous to his family.”

There were about 10 assembled pedestrian protesters at this “dangerous situation,” most of whom the video indicates were at a distance from the car until they ran to check on Bowers (who, for the record, is white) after Lafer mowed him down and ran him over.

The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project identified 69 malicious ramming attacks against protesters between May 28 and September 15 of 2020. Another group of terrorism researchers from the University of Chicago’s Project on Security and Threats found that between May 27 and September 5 of 2020, people drove vehicles into protesters 104 times. At least 43 of those cases involved drivers with obvious malicious intent, demonstrated by the yelling of racial epithets or other aggressive acts. Of those 104 drivers, just 39 faced any criminal charges.

The fuel for these attacks likely came from multiple sources. “Run them over” had become a rightwing social media catchphrase as far back as 2015, after the Ferguson uprising, and memes about vehicular homicide against protesters — like those Lafter promoted before his accounts were deactivated — have proliferated since. In 2017, Fox News ran an article headlinedHere’s A Reel Of Cars Plowing Through Protesters Trying To Block The Road.” (“Study the technique; it may prove useful in the next four years,” the author urged.) They quietly removed the piece moths later, three days after a white nationalist at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville used his car to murder Heather Heyer.

In recent years, conservative legislators around the country have responded to demonstrations and uprisings with anti-protest bills that, in addition to threatening folks’ constitutional rights, protect drivers who used their cars in attacks against protesters. Most of those failed to become law, but in the months following the police murder of George Floyd and the demonstrations that ensued, eight states have passed legislation that aims to have a chilling impact on political protest and free speech; another 21 have proposals in the works.

In Oklahoma — where last June, the driver of a pickup truck pulling a horse trailer drove through a crowd of BLM protesters, paralyzing one, but faced no charges because he claimed to be scared for the safety of him and his family — a recently signed law gives immunity to drivers who run protesters over.

The boundless anti-protest bill that Florida Gov. Rick DeSantis signed off on has stalled in court, at least temporarily, since a judge issued a preliminary injunction against sections, noting the law “emboldens civilians to hit protesters with their cars.” In response to DeSantis using an upcoming West Palm Beach “Juneteenth Black Joy Celebration” as just cause for the the law, the judge wrote in his decision that it “should go without saying that a public gathering of Black people celebrating ‘Black joy’ and release from bondage does not automatically equate to a protest — or something that the governor apparently implies should be chilled.”

Though Tennessee succeeded in passing an anti-assembly bill that doubles down on criminalization of actions that were already outlawed, this legislative session saw a second bill supporting vehicular ramming of protesters die. Not that it mattered in Lafer’s case, since the grand jury didn’t see anything criminal here.

That’s the thing about all these anti-protest laws: they deny the most vulnerable the right to demand that their personhood be recognized, while protecting the same people who are always allowed to deny that personhood. We already know how the system works. This whole anti-protest legislative movement takes pains to explicitly tell folks to stay in their place and put up with the various injustices this country inflicts upon them — or to suffer the consequences.

I asked Hewlett how she reacted upon finding out that Lafer would face no charges. She expressed a similar jaded lack of surprise.

“I’m obviously appalled by the whole process,” she said. “But I had been getting trickles of information that the charges were getting reduced, so I already wasn’t super hopeful.

“It’s just been a slow burn of they’re going to let this guy get away with this. That’s how it always goes. I don’t really know what else to say at this point.”

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