House committee passes bills raising penalties on highway protesters
A small crowd gathered outside the hearing room on Feb. 22, half an hour before two bills that would cause a sharp rise in penalties for illegal protesting were publicly discussed at the State Office Building in St. Paul. The two bills, H.F. 1066 and H.F. 390, were originally proposed by state Reps. Kathy Lohmer, R-Stillwater, and Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, who sought to increase the penalty for obstructing public highways, transit and traffic access to an airport from a misdemeanor to a gross misdemeanor. The bills arose in light of several major interstate-blocking protests in 2016, including protests over the shooting deaths of Philando Castile and Jamar Clark, and the election of President Donald Trump.
“Civil dissent is critical for democracy to work,” said Kate Havelin, a member of the audience who had been arrested at a previous interstate protest. “Just look at the Boston Tea Party. Look at Selma.”
Republican lawmakers have proposed similar bills in at least 17 other states, citing concerns ranging from highway blockage to “professional protestors,” or hired inciters of public disorder.
As members of the House Public Safety Committee and audience filed in, signs that read “Shame” on a Minnesota license plate and, “This is what democracy looks like,” were confiscated from several individuals.
The room was quickly packed with members of the public, photographers, and news crews. By the request of Committee Chair Tony Cornish, Lohmer and Zerwas presented their bills together to allow additional time for public input.
Lohmer said her main motivation to propose H.F. 1066 was for the benefit of emergency services and public workers, which she believed were severely impeded by the highway protests.
“This bill does not seek to limit the right to protest,” Lohmer said, “or limit protesters the right to express free speech.”
Zerwas echoed her sentiments while discussing H.F. 390, but took a more aggressive approach to the issue.
“It’s already against the law to block an interstate,” he said. “A law like this is meant to deter individuals from doing this. Clearly [the threat of] a misdemeanor has not.”
“Civil dissent is critical for democracy to work.”
Zerwas went on to commend Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton for his support of both bills. In late January, Dayton had expressed his concerns over public safety and right to protest, saying that he drew the line at the shutdown of a freeway.
“If you block the freeway, you should go to jail,” Zerwas said, evoking a negative reaction from the audience.
Following the representatives’ presentation, the committee opened the floor to the public. None of the 10 public speakers expressed support for the bills.
Teresa Nelson, legal director of the ACLU of Minnesota, was the first in the public to speak against the bills.
“These bills will have a chilling effect on the right to protest,” Nelson explained. “They simply pose an out-of-proportion punishment for the crime.”
Equivalent gross misdemeanors would include 5th degree assault, malicious punishment of a child, and false imprisonment. Other speakers expanded on Nelson’s statements.
“Inconvenience does not come close to the horrors that led to the protests,” said Michelle Grouse, founder of Communities United Against Police Brutality, referring to the Castile and Clark shootings. She did not believe that bills would truly deter protesters. “Passionate, young people who want to protest are going to protest regardless of the punishment,” she said.
Although race had been brought up earlier in the hearing by Rep. Becker-Finn, DFL- Roseville, who had asked Zerwas if he’d ever read Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” several of the final speakers directly addressed it.
“Inconvenience does not come close to the horrors that led to the protests.”
“There is not a single person of color on this committee,” said Quinn Connor, a concerned citizen. “H.F.390 was proposed by 16 people, all republican, all white, and almost all male.”
Connor added on to another previous point of Becker-Finn’s, suggesting that the committee members are out of touch with the people they represent in the Twin Cities. He proposed this by calculating the average distance those who proposed the bill lived from the Capitol: 86 miles.
“Jamar Clark was murdered by the Minneapolis police department. So if you want us to stop protesting sir,” said John Thompson, a member of Black Lives Matter, addressing Zerwas, “then stop giving us a reason to protest!”
Both H.F. 1066 and H.F. 390 passed 10-6.
“Shame,” members of the audience shouted.
“Arrest me now,” Thompson yelled. “You’ve just given me another reason to protest!”