Activists, DFLers push back against bill to hold protesters liable for costs

Protesters chanting 'Shame!' shut down a House Civil Law committee meeting
Protesters chanting "Shame!" shut down a House Civil Law committee meeting Monday when the panel approved a measure that could allow authorities to sue protesters committed of a crime for the cost of policing disruptive demonstrations. The measure is headed to the House Public Safety committee.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

Updated: 3:47 p.m. | Posted: 10:20 a.m.

A Minnesota House committee Tuesday approved legislation that would charge demonstrators for the cost of policing disruptive protests, a controversial measure that drew angry words from citizens and some lawmakers.

The measure, proposed by state Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, would allow authorities to sue protesters convicted of a crime. Zerwas cited protests at the Mall of America, the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and on interstates 35W and 94.

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He said Minneapolis and St. Paul police and other agencies had spent $2.5 million in the last 18 months dealing with protests.

"Taxpayers are holding the bag," Zerwas said. "That's not right." He said his bill would put participants in disruptive protests on notice "now the meter's running."

The panel voted to refer the bill to the House Public Safety Committee.

Critics, though, warned the legislation could be used as a weapon to silence dissent that politicians simply didn't like and would lead authorities to escalate either their response to protests or the costs attributed to such activities, offering police what some called a "blank check."

"Is there anyone who believes the marchers in Selma should have been charged?" Ken Geisen of Minneapolis asked the lawmakers, noting the costs to police historic civil-rights era protests.

But within minutes, the hearing turned into a protest in its own right, with protesters shouting "Shame!" and "Black lives matter," forcing the committee to adjourn minutes later.

The measure got a rebuke from Rep. Ilhan Omar, DFL-Minneapolis, saying she was born in Somalia, ruled by a dictatorship, and that his measure reminded her of the authoritarian rule there.

She also asked whether police should be similarly held responsible for the costs of misconduct.

An MPR News estimate found that between 2003 and 2013, such costs totaled more than $20 million in Minneapolis.

Omar's colleague, Rep. Ray Dehn, DFL-Minneapolis, said Zerwas' measure didn't acknowledge an effort to address what he described as growing racial disparities in Minnesota.

"We need to recognize that life isn't the same for all of us. Some of us have a privilege we were born with," Dehn said. "What your bill does is threaten the right of people to make some of us who are uncomfortable a little bit uncomfortable so we can see the change that needs to happen."

The bill's prospects aren't clear. As of Tuesday, there wasn't a Senate version of the bill, indicating it may face opposition in the other chamber — let alone a signature from the governor.

Zerwas' bill is one of a series of measures in response to recent protests. Rep. Kathy Lohmer, R-Stillwater, has another measure, upping the penalty for blocking highways to a gross misdemeanor. It's a misdemeanor now.