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Protesters who block highways may face stiffer penalties in three states

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Demonstrators on state-funded roadways would face fines, jail time, and felony charges

Police form a line across the road as demonstrators shut down the 101 Freeway following a rally to protest a day after President-elect Donald Trump's election victory in Los Angeles, California, on November 9, 2016.

Legislators in three states—Iowa, Minnesota, and North Dakota—have recently introduced bills seeking stricter punishments for people who protest by blocking roadways, particularly state-owned highways.

Following the election of and inauguration for President Trump, the nation has seen its public space, particularly in cities, flooded with protests. Demonstrators have swarmed the country’s open lands, city streets, and after last weekend, airport terminals. Now some states are specifically citing these protests as reasons to enact harsher consequences.

In Iowa, where a post-election protest of 100 people blocked Interstate 80 for 30 minutes, lawmakers are proposing fines up to $7,500, plus a felony charge and up to five years in jail. In Minnesota, where a Black Lives Matter demonstration blocked Interstate 94 last year for five hours, a bill was recently passed that will charge protesters with policing costs if they violate local highways. Most states do issue tickets and fines for “impeding traffic” on highways, but these are mostly in the $100 range.

In North Dakota, demonstrators have been blocking highways for months to protest the Dakota Access oil pipeline. A new bill introduced by Republican state representative Keith Kempenich in early January offers chilling language that specifically exonerates drivers who hit or kill protesters in a roadway: “A driver of a motor vehicle who unintentionally causes injury or death to an individual obstructing vehicular traffic on a public road, street, or highway is not guilty of an offense.”

A woman sits in the center of Highway 1806 in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, near Standing Rock, on Nov. 25, 2016, during an ongoing dispute over the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

As The Intercept reports, these moves to criminalize protest seem to specifically target the actions of liberal demonstrators—they’ve all been introduced by Republican lawmakers over the last few months.

“We are seeing an alarming trend of state bills introduced with the purpose or effect of criminalizing peaceful protest—an act that lies at the very core of the First Amendment’s protections,” Lee Rowland, senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, told CNN.

Although major roadways and bridges have always served as high-profile settings for protests, highways in particular have become a popular space for demonstrations in recent years, often because of the sheer disruptiveness that only blocking a major arterial road can create.

There’s another good reason to target highways specifically. Large crowds are disruptive to cities by their nature. Highways, on the other hand, are doubly symbolic: they connect communities with critical transportation infrastructure but are also responsible for severing the neighborhoods of a city’s most marginalized citizens.

It’s not just the election that has inspired more freeway-based demonstration. The Black Lives Matter movement, which began in 2014, spawned hundreds of protests which paralyzed major highways in cities like Atlanta, Miami, Oakland, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis. In fact, a study by NYU’s Rudin Center for Transportation of over 1,400 Black Lives Matter protests over a two-year span showed that half of the protests ended up successfully blocking transportation infrastructure.

Although recent political events have inspired these new bills, this isn’t the first time that stricter punishment for trespassing on highways has been proposed by local lawmakers. After the Occupy movement, where protesters clashed with police over the right to remain in public space in cities across the country, Massachusetts tried to raise the fine from $50 to $5,000 for those walking onto state highways. And another Massachusetts legislator wanted to hold protestors liable for manslaughter if demonstrations caused a fatal crash on a blocked highway. Those bills are still making their way through the state’s legislature.

As more marches and demonstrations are planned in cities across the country, more states will have to decide how they’ll protect access to their transportation infrastructure while they also protect the right to peacefully protest.