A confrontation between protesters and legislators in St. Paul on Tuesday underscored the nation's deepening political divide in which lawmakers in at least eight states are considering crackdowns on demonstrations.
Chants and shouting erupted after a House committee voted to pass a GOP-led measure that could make protesters financially liable if police must intervene.
Minnesota is joining a growing number of states looking to discourage large, disruptive protests.
Measures aimed at toughening laws against demonstrators have been introduced in North Dakota, Iowa, Michigan, Indiana, Colorado, Virginia and Washington state as protests have proliferated in recent months over issues ranging from police shootings to oil pipelines.
"I don't think this is a coincidence that this is happening at a time in our nation where there are widespread movements led by people of color for racial equality," said Teresa Nelson, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Minnesota. "It is very troubling that we would see this kind of suppression and these attempts to intimidate people who are engaging in constitutionally protected speech and civil disobedience."
In Minnesota, groups have waged large rallies after the police shootings of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile, demonstrations that blocked roadways, disrupted the airport and resulted in a weekslong encampment at a north Minneapolis police station.
Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, said residents are tiring of the disruptive protests.
"I think there is a push on the part of the people who I represent and I think Minnesotans think it's time we get tough on people who block freeways and try to close down airports," he said in interview.
Meeting ends abruptly
Tuesday's committee meeting ended abruptly after a House panel passed Zerwas' proposed legislation that would give cities authority to charge protesters for police services if the demonstrators are convicted of illegal assembly or public nuisance. The measure would also give cities the option of suing convicted protesters to recoup expenses from policing the demonstration.
"The meters are running and the taxpayers are holding the bag," Zerwas said.
A large crowd that opposed the bill angrily denounced the lawmakers in the House Civil Law Committee after they passed the measure on a party-line vote. Republicans supported the legislation while DFLers opposed it.
Zerwas said that $2.4 million had been spent over 18 months for the policing of protests in Minneapolis, St. Paul and Bloomington, particularly during the blockades of I-94 in St. Paul and I-35W. Zerwas said he arrived at his total policing cost by adding up estimates in media reports.
Among those testifying against the bill on Tuesday was John Thompson of St. Paul, an employee of the St. Paul Public Schools and a friend of Castile, who was shot by police during a traffic stop. After the vote, a visibly upset Thompson stood and pointed at the legislators.
"My friend's blood is on the streets of St. Anthony," shouted Thompson. "It's a crime to be a black, to be a black man driving down the street. That's why we protested."
Rep. Ilhan Omar, DFL-Minneapolis, said she opposed the measure.
"In Minneapolis there is a lot of money paid out because police use excessive force," Omar said to Zerwas. "Who should be responsible for that?"
"That's a good question for your City Council and mayor," responded Zerwas.
Omar then told Zerwas he might want to co-author a bill with her that would make police who engage in excessive force responsible for the payouts to victims.
Zerwas did not reply.
Other states in line
Lawmakers in other states have their own ideas for containing demonstrators. A bill in Iowa would make it a felony for people to intentionally block traffic on highways. North Dakota is considering legislation that would protect drivers from legal consequences if they inadvertently hit, injure or kill pedestrians who are obstructing traffic. The bill is a direct response to the massive protests to stop construction of an oil pipeline near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.
In Indiana, a lawmaker introduced a bill that directs law enforcement to use "any means necessary" to break up mass gatherings that block traffic, and a Washington state lawmaker is preparing a bill that would create a crime of "economic terrorism" — blocking streets and causing property damage.
Zerwas also introduced a measure to raise penalties from a misdemeanor to a gross misdemeanor for people who block traffic or access to freeways, airports or light rail tracks, all actions that have taken place in connection with Black Lives Matter protests in Minnesota.
Attorney Jordan Kushner, who is on the coordinating committee of the Minnesota chapter of the National Lawyers Guild and represents several protesters cited on I-94 last July, criticized the national trend.
"These are reactionary voices who are out to quash dissent, all directed at Black Lives Matter — right wing legislators who are catering to the prejudices of their base," said Kushner. "It's the Donald Trump trend at the state level."
Zerwas said he found the comment offensive.
"My voters in Elk River and Big Lake are not prejudiced," he said. "That's ridiculous. What we've heard time and time again is that these groups of protesters believe their rights supersede others by thinking they can block roads and have no consequences."
Although Zerwas' bill would allow city attorneys to sue for reimbursement of public safety costs incurred for illegal blockages, St. Paul city attorney Samuel Clark opposes it.
"As a city, we are always looking to strike the right balance between First Amendment rights and public safety," Clark said. "This bill is a misguided attempt to solve the real costs cities like ours incur when responding to large scale, mass protests. We will continue to be open to ideas for solving for those costs while still supporting First Amendment rights."