by Anna LaCombe
On Monday April 3, the Minnesota House of Representatives voted down an amendment 75-56 that would have removed repressive and controversial anti-protester language from the Public Safety and Security Finance omnibus bill on Monday. This vote was cast after hours of impassioned and enthralling debate on the House floor.
This provision in the omnibus bill, if adopted, would increase the penalty for those who block highways, airports, and public transit from a misdemeanor to a gross misdemeanor—punishable by up to a year in jail. Opponents have dubbed this the “anti-protester” provision citing not only the timing of its introduction, but also highlighting those who would be most affected by this increased penalty. Many critics see this provision as a response to the Black Lives Matter protests last year. Representatives on both sides of the aisle, although the vast majority had been Democrats, expressed their concern over the chilling effect that this increased penalty would have on free speech.
As Representative Ilhan Omar said, “this particular provision is created, whether you want to say it or not, because there is a particular annoyance we have with a particular group of people who have decided to organize themselves because they are tired of being invisible, they are tired of being ignored…”
Representative Ilhan Omar then asked her colleagues to reflect on the message they are sending. “You are continuing to say that we would like you to disappear. The reality is that you can’t make us disappear. We are a part of this state and a part of this country. There have been many laws that have changed in this country that were detrimental to people who look like me and Representative Rena Moran…[Legislators] have an obligation to make sure that people’s liberties are expanded not limited.”
Proponents have characterized this provision as necessary to protect police, protestors, and other members of the public. The most emotive justification for levying this hefty penalty centers on the hindrance that a crowd of protesters could have on emergency response vehicles. However, this bill has little to do with ensuring public safety. In fact, law enforcement did not testify in support of this bill. As critics of the provision outlined, if this provision was truly about the public good, this body and the Public Safety Committee would not have passed the bill that expands the sale of fireworks, or they would invest in our infrastructure and public transportation to reduce traffic congestion to allow for the faster transport of emergency vehicles. They would also try to address the injustices in our society that prompt people to protest in the first place or tackle why people feel that participating in direct action is their only recourse to make their voices heard.
Representative Moran, along with many opponents like Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn who had introduced the amendment, evoked Martin Luther King and his use of direct action and civil disobedience in advocating for the removal of the anti-protester language from the bill. “Back when MLK was marching he made people uncomfortable. He broke laws.” They cited the ability to protest as a means of drawing attention to injustices, “just as Martin Luther King in his days felt like unless we are an inconvenience to someone else they don’t hear you they don’t see you…”
“You may be unable to see and feel the injustice but as a black woman and a child of slaves, I am here to tell you injustices are real and we feel them. My children feel them, my sons feel it,” said Representative Moran. “I understand that people are inconvenienced but that happens every day in the life of someone who looks like me. If it’s not me, it is someone in my family, a child, a neighbor. We are inconvenienced.”
This sentiment was echoed by Representative Pryor as she recounted an interaction that she had had with one of her constituents, an African American man and a grandfather who had once asked what she thinks he sees and he feels when he sees videos of young men being shot by policemen. She said if we didn’t have those protests she wouldn’t have had those conversations. She recalls how she went back last summer and saw that his three grandsons were getting ready for a dance. “He was teaching them how to be stopped by the police…because they knew that sometimes you don’t come home from the dance…and he didn’t want it to be his grandsons…His life is different than my life because I have never taught my sons what to do what to when they are stopped by a police officer because I was never afraid. That is what I got out of the protests from that summer [and] I became a better representative…I can take a better vote today. So I think what you are saying with this bill is that those protests should not have happened or that we should raise these penalties so we don’t have these protests in the future.”
It was after hearing these speeches that I decided to make Monday’s vote on the amendment that would have eliminated the anti-protester language from the omnibus bill the focus of my meeting with my state representative. It was a fool’s errand as I watched her vote live and the light next to her name turn red.
I left her office deflated. I hadn’t bridged the divide and judging by her tone I most likely further entrenched her in her views, as she reprimanded me for putting my rights, as a protester, before those in the ambulance en route to the hospital.
This was my first time meeting with one of my elected officials and it did not go well. But I was no longer just scanning headlines for the next regressive policy that threatened our environment and wellbeing or watching budgets and funding get slashed from my couch or wringing my hands at the erosion of protections for some of our most vulnerable communities. I finally had one of the difficult conversations that had been coming since that fateful November 8th night. I had inserted myself in the democratic process and I had forced her to justify her reasoning to one of her constituents. That felt empowering. I had communicated that I had not asked for this provision. Even though I failed, I was developing a sense of agency in a process that up until now had carried on with my silent acquiescence.
Anna LaCombe is an Energy Policy and Communications Intern at the Sierra Club North Star Chapter