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Missouri lawmakers close to approving bill targeting protesters who block traffic

Wide-ranging legislation would also penalize cities that cut police budgets

A push to crack down on protesters who block roads, to penalize cities that cut police budgets and to bolster protections for officers under investigation for misconduct is on the precipice of clearing the Missouri Legislature — though Senate Democrats vow to fight to kill it. 

Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Springs and the bill’s sponsor, said in February that the legislation was about keeping people safe.

“Freedom of speech cannot be done at the personal safety and expense of another,” he said. “And I think that’s what’s happening.”

But State Sen. Steve Roberts, D-St. Louis, said the bill sent the wrong message at this critical time. 

“I understand that our law enforcement officers have a very difficult and often thankless job,” Roberts said. “The conversation needs to be: what are we doing to make sure that we have the right people in these roles? What are we doing to combat police misconduct and abuse?”

He said he negotiated language into the bill that addressed some, but not all, of the concerns expressed by St. Louis Metropolitan Police Chief John Hayden, who argued that because the bill requires the police department to give officers advance notice that they are being investigated for misconduct, it could jeopardize an investigation.

Sen. Karla May, D-St. Louis, called the bill a “Jim Crow” law meant to keep African-Americans in Missouri from “rising up” and using their First Amendment rights.  

“We need people to be able to raise their voices in a protest and raise their voices to change the injustices that happen,” May said in the floor discussion when the Senate passed the bill in February. 

Protesters in the Black Lives Matter movement have blocked intersections for symbolic amounts of time to bring attention to the issue of police brutality. For instance last summer, protesters often interrupted traffic for nine minutes, representing the length of time former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck, ultimately killing him. 

Under the GOP-backed bill, a person’s first offense of “unlawful traffic interference” would be an infraction, the second would be a misdemeanor and the third would be a felony. 

The bill also aims to prevent municipalities from decreasing the budgets for law enforcement agencies in Missouri by more than 12 percent over five years.

The House tacked several amendments, including outlawing police officers using chokeholds and having sexual conduct with detainees as well as curbing Kansas City’s residency requirements for officers.

However, those provisions were also added as amendments to another bill, Senate Bill 53, which the Senate voted on Wednesday to send the bill to the governor’s desk. The House followed suit Thursday morning. 

Some unrelated amendments, regarding regulating pesticides and electric fences for private properties, also made it on the bill.

Rep. Mark Sharp, D-Kansas City, added language that minors who have served at least 15 years of their sentence would be eligible for parole, except in certain cases like murder in the first degree.

The amendment was inspired by Bobby Bostic, who was sentenced to 241 years in prison when he was 16 after he and a friend committed a pair of armed robberies in 1995.

However, Rep. Rasheen Aldridge, D-St. Louis, said there isn’t an amendment that would make the bill worth passing. 

“We are blocking the highways because we are willing to put our lives on the line,” said Aldridge, who cried when the bill came on the floor. “Protest has led to so much great change, like the Voting Rights Act. There is not one amendment that would have changed my mind.”

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