COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — Racial justice advocates and others decried on Monday a Missouri bill that would crack down on protests that block roadways, a tactic that has been used to draw attention to racial injustice.
Critics of the measure rallied at the Capitol before a House committee considered the bill, which would make it a felony to repeatedly block traffic without permission.
Sen. Bill Eigel, a Republican, told House lawmakers that he came up with the bill after protesters, angered by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, blocked traffic last summer on Interstate 70 in the senator’s St. Charles County district.
He said blocking highways and streets puts protesters and drivers in danger.
“There is no right that you or I have that could come at the physical safety and exposure to risk of our fellow citizens,” Eigel said.
St. Louis Police Officer’s Association President Jay Schroeder, who spoke in favor of the bill, said it took “one person in a semi or one person mad in a car that wants to not just run the protesters over, but wants to run everybody over.”
But Rep. Rasheen Aldridge, D-St. Louis, called the provision “a direct attack on people who have been exercising their First Amendment rights, and to be very clear, people of color.”
Protest leaders, including Aldridge, said that even if protesters didn’t get a permit, they let law enforcement know in advance when they planned to block highways so officers could redirect traffic and take other safety precautions.
The Rev. Darryl Gray, a St. Louis civil rights activist who organized the protest against the bill, said protesting was “a part of our DNA in this country” and pointed to its importance in the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and other civil rights laws.
Gray said that the Missouri bill was meant to “stymie dissent” and that he was willing to be jailed if that was necessary for him to protest.
“This will not stop protesters from protesting,” Gray said. “As long as there’s injustice, as long as police continue to kill Black people unarmed, as long as these atrocities continue to happen, these types of protests will occur.”
Under the bill, blocking traffic without permission would first be punished as an infraction. The second offense would be a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail. A third offense would be a felony, and violators would face up to four years in prison.
Aldridge said the bill would take away people’s voting rights and put more nonviolent offenders in prison.
The legislation also targets calls to “defund the police” by racial justice advocates. Private citizens could sue Missouri cities and other municipalities that decrease funding for police agencies by more than 12 percent compared with other departments if the bill becomes law.
Confederate statues and other monuments would get greater protection under the bill, too. The measure would make damaging public monuments a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail for the first offense and up to four years in prison if the memorial is worth at least $750. The punishment goes up to as much as seven years in prison for monuments worth $5,000 or more.
The legislation also would require offenders who commit dangerous felonies against police, firefighters or other first responders to serve their full sentences without the opportunity for probation.
Another provision sets up guidelines for internal reviews of potential police misconduct, which is aimed at ensuring the process is fair to the officers under investigation.
The bill would set a 90-day limit for internal investigations of alleged police misconduct, with exceptions. Among other provisions, the measure would make all records of those internal police investigations closed to the public.