A Republican state senator wants to make it a felony for protesters to engage in what he labels “economic terrorism,” such as blocking railroad tracks.
As protests against President-elect Donald Trump sweep through Seattle and other major cities, a Republican state senator wants to make it a felony to participate in demonstrations that cause what he labels “economic terrorism.”
State Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, says he’ll introduce a bill for the upcoming legislative session that would allow felony prosecution of protesters who purposely break the law to disrupt economic activity, for example by blocking traffic or sitting on railroad tracks.
The proposal is unlikely to pass in a divided Legislature and drew rebukes from Democrats and a representative of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), who called it inflammatory and unnecessary.
Ericksen was Trump’s deputy campaign director in Washington but said his proposal has been in the works for months and was not spurred by anti-Trump protests — though it could apply to some of those, too.
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An ally of the fossil-fuel industry whose district includes two oil refineries, Ericksen said he was aiming at punishing environmentalists, tribal activists and others who have illegally obstructed oil and coal trains, pipelines and similar projects.
Ericksen’s proposal, not yet introduced in bill form, would make it a class C felony when illegal 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 in an interview.
He pointed to continuing anti-fracking protests in Olympia, where activists have set up camps over railroad tracks. He said his proposal would not apply to legal protests, such as peaceful picketing.
There are already laws on the books allowing police to remove demonstrators blocking streets or railways. In recent months, dozens of protesters have been arrested on misdemeanor trespassing charges for blocking freight and passenger trains in Bellingham and Vancouver, Wash.
State Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said she was “kind of shocked” to even hear of Ericksen’s idea.
“I just think there is nothing more un-American than this kind of proposal,” she said. “There is nothing more fundamental to our democracy than the right to protest things you think are wrong.”
Doug Honig, spokesman for the ACLU’s state chapter, called the proposal “the kind of excessive rhetoric that this country has seen enough of recently.”
Depending on how it is defined, “economic terrorism” could apply even to peaceful protests, such as those related to the Dakota Access Pipeline, Honig said, adding it is “very inappropriate and unhelpful to define civil disobedience as ‘economic terrorism.’ ”
More than going after individual protesters, Ericksen said the legislation’s goal is to target wealthy, liberal donors, such as billionaires George Soros or Tom Steyer, and organizations such as the Sierra Club, for sponsoring disruptive demonstrations. They could be held liable for damages under the bill.
Gus Melonas, a spokesman for the BNSF railroad, which has been the target of anti-fossil fuels protests, said the company will review Ericksen’s proposal once it is formally introduced.
Melonas said protesters blocking railroad tracks do create an economic and public-safety concern. “These people can voice their opinions. We just ask that they voice it off the railroad,” he said.
Ericksen’s plan immediately spurred heated reactions across social media, but is likely to remain a mostly symbolic shot at protesters.
Ericksen, who chairs the state Senate’s Energy Environment and Telecommunications Committee, said his proposal should have a good shot at passing the GOP-majority state Senate.
But Democrats look like they’ll hang on to a slender majority in the state House — and the veto pen remains in the hands of Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, an ally of environmentalists, who was just re-elected to a second term.