JEFFERSON CITY — Lawmakers heard testimony concerning a controversial Senate Bill, SB 26, that would make it a felony crime to block roadways and highways.
Those who testified opposed an amendment included that would result in felony charges for protesters asserting their First Amendment right to peacefully protest.
The amendment would make it a felony to block roadways and highways if a protester was arrested for doing so three times.
The bill was proposed by Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, and was passed through a Senate Committee a few weeks ago.
Eigel said he felt it necessary to sponsor the bill following a protest in St. Charles where protesters blocked the intersection of Interstate 70.
“As many folks are aware, we have seen a rise in individuals unlawfully entering some of our public streets and highways,” Eigel said.
Eigel wanted to make it clear this was not a discussion about free speech but rather a discussion of public safety.
Members of the committee expressed concerns with the bill. Rep. Rasheen Aldridge, D-St Louis, asked Eigel if he spoke to activists or anyone who organizes the protests he was referring to.
Eigel said he had spoken to constituents in St. Charles who were put in danger by protesters unlawfully going onto the highway.
“When I see this, I do see a direct attack on people that have been exercising their First Amendment rights. To be very clear, people of color,” Aldridge said.
Aldridge is a seasoned community organizer who has participated in many protests, many of which have been on public streets and highways. He said that if this law were in place when he was active in organizing and protesting, he would not be able to vote or run for office.
Rep. Ron Copeland, R-Salem, a former trooper, said it is already illegal to block roads and highways.
“What we would do is request them to move. And if they fail to move, it would basically be that they failed to comply with a reasonable request of a law enforcement officer,” Copeland said.
Copeland said the charge for not complying with the request of an officer is a misdemeanor, not a felony.
Felons cannot vote and often have difficulties getting hired and finding housing, among other disadvantages that come with felony charges.
Many faith leaders and community activists came to testify to the Crime Prevention Committee in serious opposition to the proposed legislation.
In his testimony, the Rev. Darryl Gray, a former state senator from Kansas, said the bill would not prevent protests from happening.
“This will not deter any crimes. This will not stop protesters from protesting,” Gray said. “As long as there is injustice, as long as police continue to kill Black people unarmed, as long as these atrocities continue to happen, these types of protests will occur.”
Faith leaders have signed a letter opposing the bill, in which they explain their role in protests as an act of prayer. The letter reads: “We do not believe prayer should be criminalized, even if it stops traffic.”