Civil liberties watchdogs are raising an uproar as Republican lawmakers crack down on protesters. Right-wing legislators in North Dakota, Michigan, Minnesota, and several other states have introduced bills which punish activists and sideswipe workers on strike.
The sudden hostility towards sign-touting and slogan-bearing Americans is born of a tumultuous year and anticipated unrest. Movements like Black Lives Matter have drawn attention by making use of controversial obstructions tactics. Freeways in Minneapolis were shut down earlier in 2016 as crowds gathered to block overpasses and jam exit ramps. The move from the Minnesota House of Representatives seeks to prevent the same from happening again by boosting penalties and cranking up fines.
An amendment to existing statutes suggests that any individual who obstructs traffic without clearance from road authorities could be charged with a gross misdemeanor. Persons running afoul of the law, if it passes successfully, would face a $3,000 fine on top of a year in jail.
Other states which found themselves disturbed by large protests have tried taking similar measures. The normally empty fields and hills of North Dakota made national headlines when students, veterans, environmentalists, and Native councilmen pushed back against construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Stand-offs between police, arm-linked protestors, and Lakota horsemen culminated in the Obama administration blocking the project from completion.
Donald Trump’s pledge to revive both the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines has emboldened conservative politicians to tackle the possibility of continued dissent. Legislation pending in Bismarck does away with the notion of manslaughter being immoral – if the Republicans backing the piece get their way, citizens who “accidentally” or “negligently” run over protestors will be protected by law. The Intercept reported Representative Keith Kempenich as saying that some accidents might occur if motorists “punched the accelerator rather than the brakes.”
As long as the sheriff weren’t able to prove that drivers acted with malice, they’d have an opportunity to get away murder.
Kempenich, to his credit, does believe in the rule of law. The Star Tribune quoted him laying down the logic as, “if you stay off the roadway, this would never be an issue. These motorists are going about the lawful, legal exercise of their right to drive down the road… Those people didn’t ask to be in this.”
Filling in the blanks drawn by broadly-applied and very vague pronouns, Kempenich seems eager to assert the rights of motorists over protestors. Apparently, being distracted behind the wheel of a car is an exercise more deserving of protection than civil disobedience. To his credit, the Republican does have the best interests of his constituents at heart – they are, according to him, “feeling terrorized” by the dramas unfolding near the edge of a sparsely-populated Indian reservation.
Michigan is also looking to alleviate some of its union-related woes by fining picketers up to $1,000 per day of sign-waving deemed illegal. Organizations caught planning such nefarious affairs – such as a strike limiting access to a Detroit McDonald’s – would be held liable for ten times that same amount.
Civil rights watchdogs have as much reason to worry as terrorized North Dakotans and Twin City commuters.
The legislation being put forward by Republicans across the United States seeks to resolve problems by providing brute force solutions. Motorists do indeed have a right to utilize public access roads, just as hungry men and women should be able to spend their hard-earned dollars on a Big Mac meal unhindered. However, a soggy conundrum is created when laws are made which have the potential to wreak more havoc than they might control.
Slapping Black Lives Matter protestors with criminal records for walking on open asphalt is a marvelous exercise in exactly the kind of irony America should leave to sitcoms and British comedy.