Minnesota needs stronger penalties to discourage protesters from endangering others by marching on freeways, Republican lawmakers argued Tuesday.
Following an impassioned debate, the House voted to make it a gross misdemeanor to participate in protests that block freeways, transit or airport roads, despite intense opposition from DFLers.
Opponents said the bill does nothing to address injustices that could prompt people to march on freeways and quashes one of the most important tools people have to draw attention to an issue: civil disobedience.
It was the third time in the past two years that the House has considered the proposal, which was inspired by protests that followed two fatal shootings of black men by police in the Twin Cities metro area in 2015 and 2016.
On Thursday, House members on a mostly party-line vote of 71-55 approved it as a stand-alone measure, after voting last week to approve it as part of a broader public safety package. The bill’s author, Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, said he wanted to give legislators and DFL Gov. Mark Dayton a chance to vote on it independently of other measures.
“It’s dangerous, as we’ve seen police officers and bystanders injured in past protests, and it comes at a great inconvenience and a great cost to the cities and the state of Minnesota,” Zerwas said.
Dayton said earlier this year that he would be open to considering increased penalties for freeway protesters. But when asked about the bill Tuesday, he had a different message for House Republicans.
“Talk about a non-problem,” Dayton said. “What they are doing is dealing with issues that are playing to their base, playing to their politics, rather than serving the people of Minnesota.”
With two weeks left in the legislative session, the Senate needs to pass the proposal before it would go to Dayton for a vote. Zerwas said he expects the Senate will take it up soon.
Protests on freeways are already illegal, but the punishment is currently a misdemeanor, not a gross misdemeanor. Zerwas said he is pushing for the change because blocking the roads or transit is dangerous and can cause delays that have significant consequences.
One woman told him a protest blocking Interstate 35W forced her to miss an important appointment at Mayo Clinic. Another person was unable to get to their mother’s deathbed in time to see her before she died, because a protest blocked airport roads, Zerwas said.
Protesters, including some legislators, participated in the marches to draw attention to the fatal police shootings of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile.
Grieving family members who participate in protests should not face a gross misdemeanor, which could mean a fine of up to $3,000 or a year in jail, said Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul.
“When you are prioritizing inconveniences over injustices, that tells us a lot,” said Rep. Ilhan Omar, DFL-Minneapolis.
Rep. Peggy Bennett, R-Albert Lea, said the measure would protect protesters and drivers. She said DFLers were unfairly accusing Republicans of racism and not caring about others.
“It’s being twisted into something that it’s not,” Bennett said. “People should not be on the freeway, period.”