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Sicorsky: Seven-year prison terms for protesters? Talk about overkill.

Sicorsky: Seven-year prison terms for protesters? Talk about overkill.

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Protesters march around downtown St. Louis

St. Louis police use pepper spray on protesters who refused to leave the flyover lanes of I-44 in downtown St. Louis on Tuesday afternoon, Nov. 25, 2014. The protesters had occupied the highway blocking all lanes for about a half hour until police forced them to leave. Photo by J.B. Forbes, jforbes@post-dispatch.com

Nearly 20 Republican-controlled states are considering bills in their respective legislative sessions that send protesters a message: shush. Missouri’s own move to crack down on dissenters is a bill sponsored by state Rep. Nick Marshall, R-Parkville, that would impose unduly harsh penalties on highway protesters.

Missouri’s bill is not the safeguard of public safety that it claims to be, nor are others like it nationwide. Instead, it seeks an unjust and unfounded increase in punishments intended to silence activism.

Conservatives’ push for stricter laws against protests coincides with an uptick in instances of collective protest action against President Donald Trump and his policies. Legislators introduced bills as Black Lives Matter, the Dakota Access pipeline and Women’s March rallies reached their cities. Marshall noted that he proposed his own bill, House Bill 826, partly in response to the recurring Ferguson protests.

The problem with HB 826 isn’t so much that it limits protest tactics. There are already lines that the Supreme Court has ruled protesters can’t cross when they exercise their right to assembly. Blocking building entrances and insisting people accept leaflets, for instance, are off limits.

What does raise flags about the proposed bill is the extreme harshness with which it seeks to intensify punishments for those who block streets, highways or interstates. Currently, a violation of this law constitutes a class A misdemeanor, which carries a sentence of no more than one year in jail or a fine of up to $2,000. Marshall wants to boost it to a class D felony — saddling offenders with a maximum prison term of seven years and a fine of up to $10,000.

The bills’ backers argue that if protesters aren’t sufficiently deterred from occupying highways, a whole slew of safety issues can arise. Ambulances and firetrucks could be delayed, commuters might suffer accidents, and protesters could get run over.

The legislation, though, doesn’t offer cases of past safety issues. There is no disputing that ambulances have sometimes experienced difficulty reaching hospitals, and commuters have had ugly run-ins with protesters. But the clickbait articles and videos “reporting” on these stories come from fringe outlets, including Breitbart and TheBlaze, that attempt to portray these rarities as regularities. Concerns over public safety just can’t be the whole story.

Most research even agrees that a “get tough” approach to sentencing does little to deter protesters from blocking roadways. All it does is imprison more people for minor offenses, worsening our mass incarceration fiasco and showing the world that America, too, has political prisoners.

Even HB 826’s backers acknowledge that harsher penalties won’t deter dedicated protesters. “I would like to think that possible penalties may give someone pause,” a lobbyist with the Missouri State Trooper Association, which also backs the bill, said at a committee hearing. “But I understand that passions for issues that people believe in, they probably will not worry about that.”

Activists have historically chosen highways as the settings for their protests for two reasons. First, unless they disrupt business as usual — which is harder to do from the confines of a sidewalk — people don’t pay attention. Second, highways represent the historic dividing lines that in the 1950s displaced low-income and minority families’ homes to accommodate growing transportation needs.

Even if effective at drawing attention, protesting on highways is already illegal. The public safety argument is a facade and deterrence is a myth, so what’s this bill really trying to do?

In March, two independent U.N. human rights investigators warned that the “exclusively” Republican-led crackdown on protests could have “a chilling effect” on protesters, “stripping the voice of the most marginalized, who often find in the right to assemble the only alternative to express their opinions.”

Assemblies, they wrote, allow the public to express their will and hold their governments accountable. The investigators specifically expressed concern about HB 826 and another bill being considered in Missouri, HB 179, that would make it a crime to wear a mask or disguise — including a hood — to a protest.

Attempts to portray these bills as public safety or law-and-order necessities distract from an increasingly common but no less disconcerting trend: Republicans, through their majorities in state legislatures nationwide, are narrowing their constituents’ avenues for expression, systematically gutting their channels for dissent.

Missouri’s proposed bill is only the next move. No one’s denying there have to be limits to protests. But people standing in your lane on a Sunday morning do not deserve a seven-year prison sentence.

Dan Sicorsky is a sophomore at Washington University and an editorial intern at the Post-Dispatch.

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