Republican Lawmakers Are Trying To Make Protests Illegal And Expensive

A handful of states have introduced bills to ramp up fines and sentences for highway demonstrations. Others go further: permitting police and drivers to physically harm protesters.

Republican Lawmakers Are Trying To Make Protests Illegal And Expensive
[Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images]

If the last few weeks are any indication, this will be a year of near-constant protest. Just a week after the Women’s March on January 21 drew an estimated 3 to 4 million participants nationwide, crowds gathered at airports around the U.S. to protest Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration. Demonstrations of solidarity with immigrants, women’s rights, and minorities have followed, and plans are in the works for a climate-change rally and a March for Science in Washington in the spring.


But a handful of legislators–specifically conservative legislators–are putting some laws in motion that seem designed to stymie continued marches and actions, by potentially criminalizing the public right to peaceful protest. According to The Intercept, lawmakers in at least 10 states have proposed bills designed to limit the scope and nature of demonstrations. Lee Rowland, a senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, tells Co.Exist that in her 12 years of working with the organization, “this is the biggest wave of anti-protest legislation we’ve seen.”

In Minnesota, where Black Lives Matter-related protests over the death of Philando Castile at the hands of a police officer flooded the Twin Cities area this past summer, a bill that passed a Republican-controlled committee in the state House in late January would allow cities to charge protesters for the cost of policing demonstrations. According to the Minnesota representative and bill author Nick Zerwas (R-Elk River), Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Bloomington have racked up around $2.5 million in protest-related costs over the last 18 months. The bill, Minneapolis NAACP president Jason Sole told the Guardian, is a “highly racialized” response to local protests that ignited over the past year in response to police brutality. Notably, Zerwas also introduced a bill earlier in January that would crack down on highway demonstrations–a form of resistance common to the Black Lives Matter movement–making them punishable by up to a year in jail and a $3,000 fine (most states already fine people for impeding traffic on highways, but it’s rare for charges to exceed $100).

Indiana’s approach to highway-protest control is almost more sinister: There, ostensibly in response to the spate of protests following the election, Republicans introduced a bill permitting police to use “any means necessary” to clear protesters off public roads. The language of that proposed law echoes the disturbing proposal that North Dakota state representative Keith Kempenich introduced in response to the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, which would waive penalties for motorists who run over and kill demonstrators, as long as the collision could be deemed “accidental.” Rowland says that she’s “never before seen a bill that so blatantly demonizes protesters. When people hear of this legislation, it rings as nothing other than deliberately silencing dissent.”

[Photo: Nitish Meena via Unsplash]

Other bills floating up through the Washington State and Iowa legislatures similarly seek to punish roadway demonstrations by increasing fines and jail sentences. Iowa’s bill was introduced after 100 protesters blocked Interstate Highway 80 following Trump’s election; Washington’s bill is also responding to street demonstrations following the election, which State Senator Doug Erickson has termed “economic terrorism” for blocking access to commercial avenues and damaging property. Michigan, The Intercept reports, seems to be specifically targeting labor unions: A bill passed through that state’s House of Representatives (but tabled, for now, by the Senate) would fine picketers $1,000 per day for organizing en masse in front of businesses and slap a daily charge of $10,000 on unions overseeing the strike; a companion bill “would have it made easier for employers to replace striking workers,” The Intercept added.

Though none of these bills have yet to be signed into law, activists are concerned about the future of public demonstrations under this heightened climate. Tessa Nelson, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Minnesota, told the Guardian that this spate of proposals could very well 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.”

However, Rowland says that anti-protest proposals often fail to make it into law, for the simple reason that they’re often not as partisan in their application as they are in their introduction. Bills meant to target, for instance, pro-choice demonstrators, by nature also must impact anti-choice ralliers. “One lawmakers realize that, they become a lot less appealing as a partisan vehicle,” Rowland says.


And protesters themselves, Rowland adds, are not deterred by the proposed bills. “Organizers are appalled, protesters are appalled,” she says. “The last several months have seen historic levels of protest in this country, and every person who has made the choice to go out and demonstrate rightly sees these bills as targeting them and limiting their freedom of expression.” But looking at the response in Minneapolis, they’re unlikely to effectively do so. After Minnesota proposed its dual anti-protest laws, Black Lives Matter Minneapolis made its stance clear on Facebook. “This is not a post of defeat,” the group wrote. “This is a warning to those trying to take away our freedom. We Ready. We Coming.”

About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.