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GOP increases moves to boost punishment for highway protests

A protest rally to Twin Cities police shooting this past summer blocked Interstate 94 in St. Paul. File photo

ST. PAUL—Minnesota Republican House members on Wednesday amplified their moves to increase penalties for people who block highways, airports and mass transit as part of protests.

"If you block a freeway, if you close an airport or if you interfere with mass transit, you should go to jail," said state Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, at a news conference. He was joined by House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, and state Rep. Kathy Lohmer, R-Stillwater.

Last year, protesters associated with the Black Lives Matter movement to highlight police actions and racial disparities blocked Twin Cities highways to elevate the attention paid to their pleas. An outcropping from one protest, spurred by the police killing of Philando Castile, shut down traffic on Interstate 94 for hours.

Democratic-Farmer-Labor Gov. Mark Dayton has expressed a willingness to consider measures to increase penalties for blocking airports or highways. Dayton, however, has questioned other measures to curtail protests.

Zerwas, who has sponsored measures to increase penalties for highway protests, has also offered a bill that would allow local governments to charge demonstrators for the cost of policing their protests. On Wednesday, he acknowledged that measure is more controversial than the highway protest bill and said he was looking for common ground on the issue.

Lohmer's bill to increase penalties for highway protests and Zerwas' bill to increase penalties for obstructing traffic to a highway or airport passed the public safety House committee Wednesday morning on 10-6 votes. The committee room was packed to overflow with attendees, who occasionally shouted during the hearing, and lawmakers heard from nearly a dozen citizens and experts who testified against the measures.

The problem is not that people are using highways to protest, John Thompson told House members. It is that injustice persists.

"Stop giving us a reason to protest," Thompson implored lawmakers.

The House bills are now ready for full floor votes.

On Wednesday afternoon on a 7-2 vote, a Senate committee approved a similar bill. The senate version of the increased protest penalty measure, however, limits the enhanced punishment to those who demonstrate at larger airports and on freeways.

Both chambers' bills would make protesting in those forbidden locations a gross misdemeanor, which could carry a punishment of a year in prison plus up to a $3,000 fine.