MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Minnesota lawmakers are moving to pass tougher penalties for protesters who block public areas.
The controversial bill targets demonstrators who block freeways, airports and light rail transit trains.
State lawmakers across the country are considering get-tough laws like this after a couple of years of serious protests, including here in Minnesota, where hundreds of protesters shut down freeways after a series of shootings of black men by police.
“If you block a freeway, you should go to jail,” said Rep Nick Zerwas, (R) Elk River, who is one of the authors of the legislation.
The Republican sponsored bills are upping the stakes for protesters, making an action that’s already illegal– more illegal.
“If you believe you have a first amendment right to block a freeway? You are mistaken,” said Zerwas. “That is against the law. Already.”
The bills raise the penalty for blocking traffic from a misdemeanor to a gross misdemeanor. That’s a more serious crime, punishable by a fine up to $3,000 and up to a year in jail.
At two emotional State Capitol hearings, critics of the get-tough plan called it an attack on free speech. A friend of Philando Castille, a black man whose shooting death by police sparked weeks of protest, called the bill racist.
“If you want us to stop protesting, stop giving us a reason to protest Please!” John Thompson of St. Paul said. “Because until then, you can charge me with a felony! I’ll be in the streets, protesting!”
Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton said last week he supports the goals of protest groups like Black Lives Matter, but says he does not support shutting down freeways, airports or light rails lines. He has not yet said whether he’ll sign the bill.