Politics & Government

Sen. Ericksen to propose bill making ‘illegal protests’ a felony

A Republican state senator who campaigned for President-elect Donald Trump said Wednesday he plans to propose a bill for the upcoming legislative session that would take a firm stand against what he calls “illegal protests.”

Sen. Doug Ericksen of Ferndale said in a news release his bill would create a new crime of “economic terrorism” and would allow felony prosecution of people involved in protests that block transportation and commerce, damage property, threaten jobs and put public safety at risk, he said.

“I respect the right to protest, but when it endangers people’s lives and property, it goes too far,” Ericksen said. “Fear, intimidation and vandalism are not a legitimate form of political expression. Those who employ it must be called to account.”

Since Trump won the election last week, thousands of people have taken to the streets nationwide to condemn his comments about Muslims, people in the country illegally and crude references to women.

In an interview with the Seattle Times, Ericksen said his proposal was not spurred by anti-Trump protests, but was aimed at punishing environmentalists, tribal activists and others who have obstructed oil and coal trains, pipelines and similar projects.

In May, for example, protesters staged multiple demonstrations against fossil fuels, blocking BNSF Railway tracks near oil refineries in Anacortes. More than 50 people were arrested.

On Tuesday, a smaller group stood on railroad tracks near downtown Bellingham to show support for opponents of the Dakota Access pipeline in North Dakota.

Ericksen’s proposal would make it a class C felony when protests aimed at causing economic disruption jeopardize public safety and property, according to a news release. It also would make organizations that sponsor or fund such protests liable for triple the economic damages caused.

“I completely support your First Amendment right to protest. You do not have the First Amendment right to block a train,” Ericksen said.

American Civil Liberties Union of Washington spokesman Doug Honig told The Associated Press Wednesday that while they’ll need to see an actual bill, Ericksen’s statement throws out a lot of broad rhetoric.

“We’re already concerned that some of its loose terms appear to be targeting civil disobedience as ‘terrorism.’ That’s the kind of excessive approach to peaceful protest that our country and state do not need. Let’s keep in mind that civil rights protesters who sat down at lunch counters could be seen as ‘disrupting business’ and ‘obstructing economic activity,’ and their courageous actions were opposed by segregationists as trying to ‘coerce’ business and government,” Honig said.

Erickson said his bill also would apply to people who fund and organize such protests.

“We are not just going after the people who commit these acts of terrorism,” Ericksen said. “We are going after the people who fund them.”

The bill, if proposed and passed through the GOP-controlled Senate, likely would face serious obstacles in the current Democratic-controlled House.

Related stories from Bellingham Herald