Tamper with a pipeline, and get charged with a felony in Colorado. Trespass on certain pieces of “critical infrastructure” like railways or pipelines in North Dakota, and the punishment could be up to one year in prison and a $100,000 fine. Participate in a protest that turns violent in Arizona, and run the risk of having one’s assets seized by police.
Almost 20 state legislatures saw anti-protester bills introduced this year. All attempted to crack down on citizens’ rights to peaceful assembly and protest.
Whether it's been a demonstration against building a pipeline in North Dakota, or protesting a police shooting in Missouri, conservative politicians are taking a get-tough stance against activists and their brash methods. And they believe they have plenty of support in Donald Trump's America.
"Two words: Donald Trump," says Rep. John Lesch (DFL-St. Paul). "The gasoline this man orally spews… really engenders politcial support they would otherwise not have. It's pure politics, and from their perspective, it's good politics."
Most of the proposals sought to address demonstrators shutting down highways. Georgia’s “Back the Badge” bill included a provision aimed at those blocking “any highway, street, sidewalk or other public passage.” The guilty would face up to a $5,000 fine and spend a year in jail.
In Minnesota, a bill by Rep. Nick Zerwas (R-Elk River) would’ve allowed police departments to charge protesters with the costs of dealing with demonstrations. Other similar proposals in St. Paul included making protesting on an interstate a felony. It’s currently a gross misdemeanor.
Zerwas couldn't be reached for comment yesterday. However, he told USA Today that his bill was meant to increase penalties as a response to "a pattern of behavior in which individuals are closing down airports or blocking freeways in violation of existing law."
But what Minnesota lawmakers pitched paled in comparison to bills in other states. An Iowa bill sought to punish protesters who intentionally block highways with up to five years in jail. In Mississippi, conviction for obstruction of traffic would’ve resulted in five years in jail and a $10,000 fine. The initial version of an Indiana bill green lit police to shut down highway protests by “any means necessary.”
A handful of other states attempted to address highway protesters by helping out motorists who had to deal with them. A GOP lawmaker in Tennessee wanted drivers who inadvertently struck a protester blocking a road protected from liability.
Lawmakers across the country introduced 35 different bills, according to the State Innovation Exchange, a group that supports statehouse progressives.
In March, South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard signed a law allowing county commissioners to prohibit groups of 20 people or more from congregating anywhere if the assembly disturbs the land or if property might get damaged.
Despite coming up short in 2017, Lesch expects conservatives in St. Paul will try again come the next session.
"It's 100 percent USDA-certified red meat for red America," he says. "And they'll keep coming at us all day long."
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