By Kate Raddatz

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — A group of Twin Cities activists gathered Sunday to discuss legislation that would create harsher penalties for some protesters.

The legislative forum drew dozens of people at the Federation of Teachers building in Minneapolis. Organizers spent several hours educating people and taking questions on new bills that aim to crack down on demonstrators who block freeways, airports and light rail transit trains.

“A majority of their rhetoric is actually about using these as deterrents,” DFL state Rep. Raymond Dehn said.

The meeting was organized by the Minnesota chapter of The National Lawyers Guild. Organizers explained to residents what the series of Republican sponsored bills would mean. The bills raise the penalty for blocking traffic from a misdemeanor to a gross misdemeanor,  meaning protesters could face a $3,000 fine and up to a year in jail.

“It’s pretty clear to me that they would like us to stay in the realm of tactics that aren’t effective,” NLG Minnesota chapter administrator Michelle Gross said.

The meeting is the latest in what’s been a passionate debate on the rights of protesters, including two State Capitol hearings. Just this week supporters defended the crackdown saying it protects public safety.

“If you believe you have a First Amendment right to block a freeway you are mistaken,” Republican state Rep. Nick Zerwas said.

It is already illegal to block a freeway. The upgrade in penalty, critics say, is targeting groups like Black Lives Matter to prevent them from protesting at all.

Another bill discussed at the meeting would charge protesters for any public safety costs.

There is one bill the activists said they are in favor of — one that would require the government to keep electronic communications, including email, for at least 18 months. The organizers said they would like to push for a longer amount of time.

Kate Raddatz