Should MN Protesters Be Financially Liable For Protest Costs?

Image Credit: Preya Samsundar/Alpha News MN

ST. PAUL, MN — A bill intended to punish protesters who block traffic and damage property is making its way through the legislature. The bill, introduced by Rep. Nick Zerwas (R-Elk River) would “allow governmental units to sue to recover costs related to unlawful assemblies and public nuisances.”

Black Lives Matter protested the bill during its committee hearing. Protesters screamed at members of the committee stating, “your seats will be replaced with people who represent us.”

Zerwas spoke with Alpha News MN about the finer details of the bill stating, “these bills are aimed to create actual consequences for people that violate the law. Neither of these bills makes something illegal that is currently legal. These bills only aim to increase the consequences. I fundamentally believe it is not ok for the rights of the motoring public and property tax payers to be ignored, and then for us to be given the bill when the illegal protest has ended”

On Friday night Alpha News spoke to a gentleman waiting for a train in Downtown Minneapolis after the inauguration protesters shut down light rail, saying, “it [shutting down light rail] is a useful tactic but it is annoying, so it’s working.”

Zerwas told Alpha News he seeks to increase the criminal penalties. “The civil penalty bill looks to recoup costs from the people that incurred them. The increase in criminal penalties will increase the penalty for blocking a freeway, access to an airport, or blocking light rail tracks. The bill would make those offenses a gross misdemeanor rather than just a misdemeanor.”

Friday’s attempt to shut down light rail is just one of many demonstrations that have taken place in the last two years in the Twin Cities. Groups like Black Lives Matter have shut down several major freeways during peak rush hour times, blocked access to airports, and have shut down the Mall of America during the holiday season – costing businesses tens of thousands of dollars.

Judges dropped or reduced most charges against protesters for various reasons. Zerwas notes that changing the law allowing for gross misdemeanor charges for blocking roads means prosecutors would not have to prove protesters participated in riots. As reported by Alpha News, a Ramsey County Judge threw out riot charges against more than forty I-94 protesters because prosecutors could not prove that individuals had thrown objects at police officers.

The bill does not address permitting protests directly according to Zerwas. The Constitution grants the people the right to peacefully assemble. The United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Cox v. New Hampshire (1941) stating the Government has the right to license protests dictating the time, place, and manner of the protest.

Minneapolis, St. Paul, Bloomington, and the State Patrol have spent more than $2 million over the last 18 months responding to protests – which are being paid for by property taxpayers in those cities according to Zerwas.

Opponents of the bill worry it could silence protesters. MPR reports Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minneapolis) notes the bill reminds her of authoritarian rule in her home country of Somalia while Rep. Ray Dehn (D-Minneapolis) says the bill threatens the right of others to make people uncomfortable in the name of change.

The bill passed the committee 9-6.