by Sarah Cronin
Indiana passed a bill on Wednesday that authorizes police officers to shut down highway protesting “by any means necessary.” S.B. 285, as it is known, obliges a public official to dispatch all available officers within 15 minutes of discovering any assembly of 10 or more people who are obstructing vehicle traffic.
The bill then authorizes the responding officers to clear roads “by any means necessary.”
Critics are calling it the “Block Traffic and You Die” bill, an apt name for a bill that has co-opted the phrase “any means necessary,” used famously in speech delivered by Malcolm X during the Civil Rights movement, turning it into a threat against government dissent (with no apparent awareness of the irony).
S.B. 285 is among a collection of increasingly hostile ‘anti-obstruction’ laws that have been quietly submitted in states around the nation over the past few months. A report by The Intercept published Wednesday tracked five such anti-protest laws introduced by Republican lawmakers in different states, four of which are currently pending.
One of the most disturbing among them is House Bill N. 1203, a bill introduced earlier this month by North Dakota lawmaker Keith Kempenich in response to the Dakota Access Pipeline Protests. The bill would exempt motorists who hit demonstrators with their cars from any liability in cases where the victims were “obstructing vehicular traffic on a public road, street, or highway.” This twisted take on protest criminalization comes short of condoning manslaughter as a viable means of crowd control.
Also this month, Minnesota State Representative Kathy Lohmer led the effort on submitting H.F. 322, a bill that would re-classify obstructing highway traffic from a misdemeanor to a “gross misdemeanor” and would authorize government units to sue protesters for “public safety response costs related to unlawful assemblies.”
The proposed legislation is strikingly reminiscent of Washington State Senator Eric Ericksen’s proposal to punish protesters as ‘economic terrorists,’ which Anti-Media first reported on in November.
All of the proposed laws share a common trait in that they were all adopted in response to a major protest event in that state. H.F. 322 was submitted shortly after a judge dismissed the riot charges against protesters who took to the St. Paul Interstate last July in a demonstration against the police shooting of Philando Castille. Ericksen’s “economic terrorism” bill announcement came just days after anti-fracking protesters blocked railroad tracks in Olympia, Washington. DAPL protests inspired both the Indiana and North Dakota bills.
These retroactive responses on behalf of Republican state lawmakers are also seen as preemptive strikes against the threat of increased protests during the Trump presidency.
As ACLU staff attorney Lee Rowland expressed in an interview with The Intercept, these so-called ‘obstruction bills’ are but thinly disguised efforts to squash any government dissent.
“A law that would allow the state to charge a protester $10,000 for stepping in the wrong place, or encourage a driver to get away with manslaughter because the victim was protesting, is about one thing: chilling protest,” Rowland said.
Growing tension between government officials and protesters is expected to come to a culmination on Inauguration Day in D.C., where there will already be many barriers in place to limit demonstrations.
First and foremost is the Federal Grounds and Buildings Improvement Act of 2011, known as H.R 347.
H.R.-347 is a revision of a 1971 federal trespassing law that made it a crime to “willfully and knowingly” remain in an area under Secret Security protection. H.R. 347 removes the word “willingly,” a legal technicality that effectively lowers the bar on the mental state required to be found guilty under the law.
As explained by the American Civil Liberties Union:
“Under the original language of the law, you had to act ‘willfully and knowingly’ when committing the crime. In short, you had to know your conduct was illegal. Under H.R. 347, you will simply need to act ‘knowingly,’ which here would mean that you know you’re in a restricted area, but not necessarily that you’re committing a crime.”
Under current federal law, protesting in proximity to an elected official under the protection of the Secret Service, which includes President Trump, is a crime punishable by fine and up to ten years in jail.
Protesting during Trump’s inauguration comes with additional complications as the National Park Service reserves a large portion of the inaugural parade route along Pennsylvania Ave and in Freedom Plaza for ticket sales under the exclusive discretion of Trump’s Presidential Inaugural Committee (PIC). This means the PIC can refuse to allow protesters along the route.
An activist group called Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (Answer) has been engaged in a legal battle with the National Park Service since 2005, arguing the privatization of the Inauguration is an attempt to “sanitize” the streets of dissent.
While the National Park Service has been controversially setting aside tickets for the PIC since 1980, the issue garnered more attention this year when it was discovered that the sidewalk in front of the Trump International Hotel, a significant site for protesters, would be a part of PIC’s ticket-only area.
Adding another level of bureaucracy, the Washington Post reported the hotel and plaza in front are actually under the control of Trump’s real estate agency, meaning protesters would have to literally ‘ask permission’ to remain in the space.
As the week comes to an end, it becomes apparent that dissent is being criminalized not only nationwide but on multiple fronts. Increased regulations are appearing that limit the public spaces that can be lawfully occupied in protest. Meanwhile, legislation is also being introduced to increase the negative consequences for newly unlawful protests. Should more states follow suit with Indiana, demonstrators will soon find themselves paradoxically protesting for their right to protest at all.
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