Minnesota GOP charts new course in response to protests

Published 9:50 am Monday, January 23, 2017

ST. PAUL — Minnesota officials responded to months of unrest last year after the death of a black man shot by police officers with funding meant to reduce the state’s widespread racial disparities. This year, a new Republican-controlled Legislature is plotting a crackdown on protests, with tougher penalties for highway marchers and potentially putting some demonstrators on the hook for the enforcement costs at unruly protests.

It’s a marked shift in reaction to the protests that simmered for weeks after the death of 24-year-old Jamar Clark in November 2015 and again last summer after 32-year-old Philando Castile was shot and killed during a traffic stop near St. Paul. In both cases, protesters from Black Lives Matter and others set up encampments that police departments said cost more than $1 million in officer overtime and some damages. And in the days after each shooting, dozens of demonstrators were arrested after shutting down Interstate 94 with massive rallies, though charges were later dropped.

Emboldened by taking full control of the Legislature this fall, Republican-backed bills would make it easier for prosecutors to charge for blocking highways with a gross misdemeanor and up to a year in jail, while also allowing local police departments to sue convicted protesters for the costs associated with demonstrations.

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“At some point, the rule of law has to matter,” said Rep. Nick Zerwas, an Elk River Republican pushing for both bills. “I think it’s time to show there is accountability.”

Zerwas and other Republican lawmakers had proposed the harsher punishments for protesters before, but their expanded power at the Capitol makes it a potential reality this year. And with protests across the country motivated by officer-involved deaths, controversial pipelines and President Donald Trump, Minnesota Republicans aren’t alone in considering how to respond.

Similar measures meant to curb protests that snarl traffic or disrupt business have cropped up in Iowa, Indiana and Washington. In North Dakota, where protesters have gathered to obstruct the Dakota Access Pipeline, a Republican lawmaker’s bill would protect drivers who inadvertently hit or kill demonstrators on roads.

The response to demonstrations in Minnesota last year was far different.

Fueled by decades of growing racial disparities and the outcry after Clark’s killing, Minnesota lawmakers eventually approved $35 million in new programs in 2016 meant to close income and educational gaps between the state’s black and white residents. At the time, Democrats controlled the Senate.

Rep. Rena Moran, a St. Paul Democrat and one of the Legislature’s few black lawmakers, said that’s where the focus should remain to truly address protester’s issues.

“They have not had one conversation with those people, who are feeling the injustice. If they did, I don’t think this would be their first priority,” she said. “This may be a wake-up call that elections matter, that your voice matters, that your voice is your vote.”

Minnesota’s branch of the American Civil Liberties Union is on high alert. Legal director Teresa Nelson said both measures are ripe for constitutional challenges, saying they could have a chilling effect on free speech and assembly by dissuading people from getting involved in marches and rallies due to fear of getting stuck with a big bill or jail time.

Zerwas said there’s no constitutional right to blocking traffic. He’s working on another bill that would expand the increased criminal penalties to blocking airport entryways or traffic on light-rail train tracks — both sites of protests since Clark’s 2015 death. His bill allowing law enforcement to recoup enforcement costs is due for a first hearing on Tuesday.

Moran stressed the need for safety but said the extraordinary tactics can be necessary to highlight “the injustices that were happening in the dark.”

“That was important: That they disrupt business as usual, that they move in to a place and bring awareness to an injustice,” she said.