Protest penalty bill gets House OK

For the third time in a year, the Minnesota House approved legislation cracking down on protesters who impede freeway traffic, airport access roads or dedicated transit lines by allowing prosecutors to charge those involved in a blockade with gross misdemeanors.

Such charges could bring stiffer fines and the possibility of up to a year in jail. The actions are illegal now, but charges are limited to a misdemeanor.

A similar measure passed off the House and Senate floors last year, only to be discarded in end-of-session negotiations. The language is also part of this year’s House budget bills.

The latest version, which passed Tuesday on a 71-55 vote,  is traveling alone. It's unclear what Gov. Mark Dayton would do if it reaches him.

Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River and the bill’s sponsor, said he’s attempting to deter “increasingly escalating protest activity that is dangerous.”

He and allies, such as Rep. Matt Dean, said protests and freeways don’t mix.

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“If you shut down the freeway, if you shut down the airport, you should go to jail because you are endangering the lives of other people in the state,” said Dean, R-Dellwood.

As in the past, the bill prompted sharp pushback from DFLers who said their Republican counterparts were ignoring what the protests are about. Incidents where black men were shot by police officers have led to protests in recent years that spilled onto freeways or halted light rail traffic.

Democrats said it was less about public safety than punishment. They said it would have a chilling effect on free speech.

“This is a fight between authoritarianism and free speech, and this bill moves us in the direction of authoritarianism,” said Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul.

Rep. Peggy Flanagan, DFL-St. Louis Park, said she has proudly been involved in a protest over one police shooting, even if that demonstration caused temporary inconvenience.

“I walked behind the mother of Philando Castile down the light rail tracks,” Flanagan said. “I would do it again in a heartbeat because I am a mother. Yes I was, I was trespassing.”

Rep. Peggy Bennett, R-Albert Lea, said she was offended that supporters of the bill were being cast as tuning out communities or ignoring dissenting views.

“Am I an evil teacher because I told my first-graders they couldn’t have recess in the road? No I’m not,” Bennett said. “It’s because I cared for them and that’s the same way this bill is and it’s being twisted into something that it’s not. People shouldn’t be on the freeway in the first place. Period. It’s a dangerous place.”

Dayton, a DFLer, has sent mixed signals about the legislative push. He told MPR News in March that he would be concerned if the bill was too broad or vague, but could support some enhanced penalty in the name of public safety.

“People who are driving at reasonable but proper speeds come around the corner but suddenly traffic is halted,” he said. “There is a public safety risk, and there is a risk to law enforcement.”

On Tuesday, however, Dayton sounded less receptive and said he needed to study the wording of the bill.

“Talk about a non-problem which is again appealing to their political base,” Dayton said. “Why don’t they do something about health care? Why don’t the make health care affordable? Why don’t they provide the schools with emergency assistance? Why don’t they do the things that the people of Minnesota need them to do? I haven’t seen a protest out there in over a year or almost a year.”

There were lawmakers from both parties on both sides of the issue who broke with their overwhelming party positions.

Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, stood up for the bill’s supporters and said the legislation wouldn’t outlaw any protests. He also took umbrage with the legislators who drew the issue back to police shootings.

“I am sick and tired of our law enforcement officers being second-guessed by our lawmakers here,” he said. “A second of hesitation can be life or death for a law enforcement officer.”

Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, said he couldn’t support the bill.

“When it comes to this we should be asking why people feel compelled to shut down streets or mass transit,” Hamilton said, “and then listen to what they have say so we can work together to address that injustice.”