Republicans want jail time for protesters who block highways

BLM leaders head the march.
Mica Grimm of Black Lives Matter Minneapolis sits on a truck rooftop while Adja Gildersleve rides on the back as protesters march down Interstate 94 in July 2016 following the police killing of Philando Castile.
Christopher Juhn for MPR News file

In the past year, demonstrators have snarled Twin Cities traffic during several protests over police shootings.

Protests related to employee wages and the results of the presidential election have also blocked traffic.

On Wednesday, House and Senate committees advanced bill that would make blocking highway traffic, airport access or public transit a gross misdemeanor, which requires jail time.

Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, who's sponsoring the House bill, said some people wrongly believe that they have a right to shut down freeways.

Zerwas said his bill simply increases the penalty for something that is already illegal.

"If you block a freeway, you should go to jail," he said.

During a House Public Safety committee hearing, Rep. Kathy Lohmer, R- Stillwater, said tougher penalties would help reduce the public safety risk of freeway protests.

"We would like to do all we can to discourage people from protesting on these specific areas." But opponents say the bill goes too far.

Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, said she's not convinced the change would deter people who are protesting against racial injustice.

"Until we address the underlying injustice, we're going to continue to have dissent," she said. "So instead of trying to further stifle dissent by increasing penalties, this bill is basically going to do the opposite, as far as addressing those injustices."

Kay Smith of St. Paul, whose husband was killed in a police shooting last year, told lawmakers that the bills would limit First Amendment rights.

"Blocking the freeway may be an inconvenience, but police killing people is far worse and an inconvenience in our life too," she said.

The debate was similar in the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety committee.

Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, also stressed the dangers of freeway protests.

"Not only do we want to prevent a tragedy on the roadways, where someone could get be injured or killed, we also have to have access to law enforcement emergency medical services and hospitals," Ingebrigtsen said. "It's extremely important for the good of all Minnesotans."

Last month, opponents packed a House hearing to push back loudly against a separate bill, also sponsored by Zerwas, that would charge demonstrators for the law enforcement costs of protests.

But the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Republican Warren Limmer of Maple Grove, said his committee will not take up that issue this session.

John Thompson, of the groups Fight for Justice and Black Lives Matter-St. Paul, told lawmakers that they don't understand why people protest.

"What's going to stop people from protesting is people like you coming outside, finding out what it is you can do to help the people that are mourning, that have a problem with the injustice being served to us in a dish," he said.