By Maureen McMullen, Forum News Service
Activists say legislation that would charge protesters for public safety costs directly targets movements like Black Lives Matter.
A crowd gathered near the front steps of the Minnesota Capitol Thursday, Feb. 16, as leaders with organizations like Black Lives Matter Minneapolis and the Black Liberation Project called on Minnesota lawmakers to reject the bill.
Mischa Graham with Black Lives Matter spoke at the rally and said the bill was an attempt to “profit off dissent.”
“It is fundamentally unconstitutional to profit off a protest,” she said. “We’re not out here to get paid, and we’re not out here to get anybody else paid, am I right? So, that’s why we’re here, we have to say ‘no.'”
The bill would allow government entities to sue individuals for public safety costs accrued from instances that lead to unlawful assembly or public nuisance convictions.
Its author, Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, said police responses to unlawful demonstrations Twin Cities in the last 18 months, particularly those on freeways, have cost local governments $2.5 million.
“If you’re convicted of a crime where you intentionally inflict as much expense and cost upon a community as possible, you ought to get a bill,” he said at a Jan. 24 House committee meeting. “It should not be a property taxpayer’s responsibility to cover for your behavior.”
St. Paul resident Alondra De La Torre said she is concerned about the broad language in the bill, adding that “it’s usually not in favor of people of color.”
She said she hopes the rally helps lawmakers understand how Minnesotans feel about the bill.
“There might not be as much support here as there was during the Women’s March, but hopefully they see that there’s people here than care about what’s happening in their city,” she said. “They also need to take into consideration that this bill includes people who might not be here because they’re afraid and people are silencing them.”
For John Thompson, a colleague of Philando Castile at a St. Paul school, the event was cause for cautious optimism. Castile, who was black, died after being shot by a police officer.
“That bill isn’t going to make it out of the building,” he said. “But what I’m more concerned about are the racist attitudes behind bills like this.”
Opponents of the bill say it targets marginalized people and stifles citizens’ rights to protest peacefully.
That is what Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton said as Thursday’s protest began. He said government should not try to quash protests.
Dayton, who protested the Vietnam war, said he draws the line at protests on interstate highways and airports, which affect public safety. But he said that he did not think protesters should have been removed from in front of his official St. Paul home last year.
“It is their public right,” the governor said.
Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minneapolis, said during a legislative meeting that the bill would limit rights granted by the First Amendment, which she read out loud.
“I come from and was raised in a country that was under dictatorship,” said Omar, who immigrated to Minnesota from Somalia. “To me, the bill and the limitations that it’s going to create, it’s almost like you want us to live under a dictatorship.”
Zerwas also authored a bill that would increase penalties for people who obstruct highways and airports from a misdemeanor to a gross misdemeanor.
Those charged with blocking transit could face up to one year in prison or pay a $3,000 fine.
“I think some of the challenges are what the bills actually do is being misconstrued by some people,” Zerwas said. “The reality of both of the bills is, there is absolutely nothing that is currently legal to do that would become illegal if these bills were passed and signed into law.”
He is not alone in his pursuit of Minnesota laws aimed at thwarting protests that block traffic.
Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, authored a bill that would require felony charge for people who obstruct “the lawful execution of any legal process.”
The bill’s goal, he said, is “public safety and getting people off of blocking the interstate during rush hour.”
Garofalo also said he is concerned protests blocking traffic might impede ambulance’s ability to reach hospitals.
A separate House bill by Rep. Kathy Lohmer, R-Stillwater, would increase charges for intentionally blocking traffic from a simple misdemeanor to a gross misdemeanor.
“There are folks that have decided that that’s a good place to protest, and I think it’s a very serious public safety issue, not just for the drivers but for protesters as well,” she said.