GOP plan to stiffen protest penalties survives challenge

A protester stands on I-94 eastbound.
A protester stands on Interstate 94 last summer in protest of the police killing of Philando Castile. The demonstration shut down the main highway for hours.
Christopher Juhn for MPR News

The Minnesota House has refused to back away from a controversial proposal to stiffen penalties for obstructing freeways and other routes during protests.

The Republican-led chamber defeated efforts to strip the measure from a broader public safety bill in a 75-56 vote that didn't exactly follow party lines. Tense debate over the proposal had both sides quoting Martin Luther King Jr. and lawmakers talking about their heritage.

The measure would make obstructing a freeway, airport entrance or light rail train a gross misdemeanor crime with penalties of up to a year in jail and a $3,000 fine. Such acts are currently misdemeanors that carry tamer penalties.

In the past year, political and racial-justice protests have temporarily closed Twin Cities highways.

Opponents of the proposal say that merely cracking down on behavior that is inconvenient or annoying ignores why people are protesting in the first place.

"This is being pushed as part of a systemic agenda, nationally and certainly in our state, to suppress dissent," said Rep. Dave Pinto, DFL-St. Paul.

Republicans pushing the measure argue that while it's already illegal to block a freeway, current penalties aren't stopping protests from getting out of hand.

"If you're on the freeway, if you're blocking an airport, if you are blocking a train, you deserve to go to jail. It's just that simple," said Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River.

Legislation similar to the Minnesota proposal has been pushed in statehouses nationwide this year.

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