Embolden by the technical win of their minority President Republican legislators in 5 states have goose-stepped up to the plate and introduced bills aimed at restricting public expression of dissent and/or clearing the way for their jack-booted supporters to take down the opposition. North Dakota State Representative Keith Kempenich sponsored HB 1203 that would allow “negligent” drivers to run down protesters in the road, as long as it was “accidental”, and leaves it to the discretion of the same militarized police forces that besiege the Water Protectors at Standing Rock on a daily basis to determine the intent of the driver. Kempenich is very clear that his bill is a response to the success of the #NoDAPL protests. He defends his position this way, “Those 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.” As if the people at Sacred Stone Camp asked to have a timebomb pipeline rammed through their land. The only ones that “asked” to be in this are the corporate board and shareholders that profit from the Black Snakes that have nested all over this land – and that was really more a “demand”. Can Kempenich or any other of his authoritarian-friendly supporters cite evidence that the right to drive down a road is more fundamental than the constitutional right to free expression? No, they cannot. All they have is their belief that authority trumps freedom and a minority share of public support.
In my home state of Minnesota Rep. Nick Zerwas (R; 30A) is carrying 2 bills for his GOP cohorts. HF 390 would criminalize non-violent civil disobedience, while HF 322 would allow municipal governments to sue protestors for the cost of policing the protests at which they express their constitutional rights. These two bills work together to stifle constitutionally protected public displays of dissent and resistance. The essence of HF 390 is to explicitly label blocking traffic, impeding commerce, and disrupting the status quo as misdemeanors, setting the stage for civil actions under HF 322. Zerwas has proposed a one, two punch to the gut of democracy with goal of beating down opposition from the people he has sworn to represent. That ain’t right.
In their rush to get with the Trumpist pogrom, the Minnesota GOP has forgotten that the nation they love was born of illegal protests that were specifically intended to inflict as much financial and physical damage as possible on the ruling royals across the pond. I mean, seriously Nick? Think it through. If you are willing to deny that historical fact, I must insist that you have drifted very far from the original intent of those that founded this nation. You are off to Fascist Land, and I ain’t going that way. I suspect more than a few of your Republican allies might not be in lock-step with you either. Maybe.
Sadly, ignoring the positive role of civil disobedience and protest in US history is not the only flaw in the HF 322/HF 390 Authoritarian Support and Security Bills. The public testimony at the Minnesota House of Representatives Civil Law and Data Practices Policy Committee hearing on January 24 countered every one of Zerwas’ arguments in favor of his ASS Bill. Check the video.
Ken Geisen highlights the positive role of disruptive protest in modern US history that Zerwas and his ilk ignore and demean. The US Constitution explicitly states that when the central government fails to meet the needs of the people we have, not only the right, but the duty to revolt. Ryan Voss explained that the ASS Bill would codify a form of double taxation for non-violent protesters because they already pay for police. Essentially Zerwas’ proposed a way to monetize dissent and free expression. The ASS Bills amount to a tax on free speech. In defense of his Free Speech Tax, Zerwas cited current MN law allowing those convicted of arson in state forests to be sued for recovery of fire-fighting costs. Testimony from Hunter Cantrell revealed the abhorrent false equivalency of arson and 1st Amendment rights. Apparently, Republican legislators need to be reminded that people marching in the streets demanding social justice are in no way similar to people that maliciously set fires in state forests. Testimony from Cathy Jones, representing the NAACP, underscores another fallacy of ASS Bill 322. Why single out non-violent protesters for double taxation and ignore the increased costs of policing late night bar patrons or unruly sports fans? The extension of bar hours for the 2018 Super Bowl in Minneapolis provides a case in point. Would Zerwas and the GOP caucus agree to give the MPLS the right to sue those arrested during the extended bar hours to recover the costs of extra policing? I doubt it. Patience Zalanga summed up the public testimony by reminding the legislators that activists do not need to approval of repressive governments to justify their work, “We’ve been here. We’ve done this. We will do it again. Until our voices are heard.” HF 322 was passed by a 9-7 vote in the committee and the public continued to testify and shame the Republican members. I agree. The ASS Bills are a shame – and a sham.
“Rather than addressing injustices, Republican politicians are seeking to stifle protests that bring critically needed attention.” – Cathy Jones, NAACP
The most damning evidence that Zerwas’ Free Speech Tax had no substantive support could not be captured by the video because not a single person came forward to testify in support of HF 322, nor did any of his GOP co-sponsors offer any support. Instead, they sat silently waiting to vote yes. As far as I can tell, HF 390 hasn’t even been discussed in any committee in a GOP controlled House. The weakness of Zerwas’ half-baked bills and the sustained dissent of non-violent activists has kept the ASS Bills from gaining traction in Minnesota. Representative Debra Hilstrom (DFL; 40B) questioned Zerwas on this point, yet he could point to no support from the laundry list of government units he claimed were demanding the right to sue protesters for damages. On the surface, Rep. Zerwas’ assertion that he has spoken to “property tax payers” sounds like grass roots support, but his Sherburne County district has not yet been targeted by the protests he rails against. His constituents have not been “left holding the bag” because the cost of police and courts are the responsibility of the local governments in cities where the protest have taken place. Consequently, Zerwas represents no one but himself and the authoritarian right. Considering that his home district is 95% white, he has little to lose by demonizing the Black Lives Matter protests to score political points with his base. Where Nick’s calculation is statistical, my appeal is personal. Any TEA Party, Libertarian, or small government Conservative in MN District 30A that matches my demographic understands the value of free expression and the dangers of restricting it as HF 390 and 322 are intended to codify. Today Zerwas is coming for BLM, tomorrow his successor will be coming for you.
In a sense, Zerwas and his Republican cohorts in CO, MI, ND, WA, and DC have already managed to criminalized dissent whether their laws pass or not. At least in the minds of many and in the eyes of the media. If elected representatives truly want to address the fundamental issues that bring people to the streets, we must realize that the Law & Order approach is wholly inappropriate and savagely detrimental. This is true whether people are marching with BLM or with the TEA Party. Lucky for us, we have the testimony of John Thompson, by far the most powerful voice at the January 24 hearing. Thompson reminds us that the real issue is not blocked traffic or delayed flights, it is the systematic, on-going harassment and murder of young people of color. That problem is compounded by the refusal of politicians like Zerwas to address it. Bottom line, if the GOP wants to stick to the Law & Order frame, then start by holding killer cops accountable for their actions. I urge you take Rep. Omar (DFL; 60B) up on the offer to co-author a bill to protect MN tax payers from excess costs incurred by acts of police brutality. Now listen to John: