Minnesota lawmakers are advancing a bill that would allow cities to sue protesters who violate the law for the cost of the police response to the demonstration. The bill is one of several being introduced across the US that seek to penalize protesters.
Both critics and supporters of the controversial bill agree on one thing: it is a response to Black Lives Matter-inspired protests in the Twin Cities area over the last two years, particularly after an officer shot and killed Philando Castile in July. The officer who shot Castile, Jeronimo Yanez, has since been charged with second degree manslaughter.
Those protests have on occasion blocked local freeways, an act of civil disobedience that the bill’s author, Representative Nick Zerwas, singled out when presenting the bill to the house civil law committee.
“I have an entire constituency that feels as though protesters believe that their rights are more important than everyone else’s,” he said in an interview. “Well there is a cost to that. Rosa Parks sat in the front of the bus. She didn’t get out and lay down in front of the bus.”
The bill, which passed a Republican-controlled committee in the Minnesota house of representatives on Tuesday, would give state agencies, cities or counties, the authority to bring civil lawsuits against people convicted of unlawful assembly or public nuisance. The lawsuits could seek the full cost of responding to the “unlawful assembly”, including officer time, helicopters flying overhead and administrative expenses.
The Minneapolis NAACP president, Jason Sole, called the bill a “highly racialized” response to the local protest movement.
“It’s just another way for them to say, OK, if they don’t stop and let us run it how we want to run it, we’re going to further penalize them,” he said. “That has always been the response when people want to rise up. If you look at the civil rights movement, people were beaten, they had dogs on them. This is just another way to tell us to stay in our place.”
Zerwas, who has also introduced another bill in the Minnesota house that seeks to increase criminal penalties for protesters blocking highways, emphasized that the bill would only increase liability for protesters who have “broken the law”.
But John Lesch, one of the Democratic representatives who voted against the bill in committee, said he thought the bill was “too vague” about who could be held responsible and for how much money, to be seriously considered.
“The bill itself is not really thought out as to how it would be applied,” Lesch said. “It was really throwing red meat to the big Trump fans who really don’t like protests, unless of course it’s their protest.”
The proposal is part of a broader trend of bills that punish protest in US state legislatures. In Indiana, a bill would allow state officials to clear a road blocked by protesters using “any means necessary”. In Washington, a bill called the “Preventing Economic Terrorism Act ” creates a new crime for protesters who “cause an economic disruption”, with a mandatory 60-day sentence. In North Dakota, the site of protests over the Dakota Access pipeline, a new bill would protect drivers who inadvertently hit protesters blocking the road. And in Iowa, a proposed bill would create five-year prison sentences for protesters who block highways. None of those proposals have become law.
Teresa Nelson, the legal director of the Minnesota ACLU, warned that the bill could empower the government to pick and choose which kinds of protesters to pursue in civil court. She warned it would probably have a “chilling effect” on civil disobedience.
“A lot of people may have the ability to sit in jail for a couple days but not the ability to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in response to an act of civil disobedience,” Nelson said. “So I think that it would significantly diminish the number of people who are willing to protest, because they simply cannot afford the crushing debt that would happen.”
According to Zerwas, making civil disobedience harder was exactly what he had in mind.
“It’s a tactic, but it comes at a cost. You break the law to make a point and then you pay the penalty,” he said.
Patience Zalanga, a photographer known for documenting the Black Lives Matter movement who testified against the bill, said she feared that if it became law, both she and the people she photographs could be targeted.
“I am a black woman who is a photographer, who attends these protests because these issues impact me and the people I love,” she wrote in a message.
“The motivation behind this bill was simple. To silence and instill fear. Let’s be clear this bill impacts all people in the state of Minnesota, but more specifically black, brown and indigenous communities.”
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