Updated: Apr 12, 2021
NAACP Missouri President Nimrod "Rod" Chapel speaks during a rally Monday in the Capitol before the group broke to visit legislators to express their views on specific legislation going through the chambers.
Racial justice advocates and others on Monday decried a Missouri bill that would crack down on protests that block roadways.
Critics of the measure rallied at the state Capitol before a House committee considered the bill, which would make it illegal for a person to interfere with traffic on any public street, highway or interstate highway.
The first violation would result in an infraction. The second violation would result in a Class B misdemeanor. The third would be considered a Class E felony.
Republican Sen. Bill Eigel told House lawmakers he came up with Senate Bill 26 after protesters, upset by the death of George Floyd, blocked traffic last summer on Interstate 70 in the senator's St. Charles County district. He said blocking highways and streets puts protesters and drivers in danger.
St. Louis Police Officer's Association President Jay Schroeder, who spoke in favor of the bill, said it takes "one person in a semi or one person mad in a car that wants to not just run the protesters over but wants to run everybody over."
However, St. Louis Democratic Rep. Rasheen Aldridge called the provision "a direct attack on people who have been exercising their First Amendment rights and to be very clear, people of color."
Missouri is doubling down on stupid, Missouri NAACP President Nimrod Chapel said during a rally in opposition to SB 26.
Chapel said the bill would fundamentally dampen the ability of citizens to communicate their concerns about government, whether local, state, regional or national.
There are already processes in law geared toward traffic interference, Chapel said.
"What this is really going to do is be used as a mechanism to stop free speech in the state of Missouri," he continued.
Oklahoma recently passed similar legislation, he said. That was the same bill that at one time said it was OK to run into protesters with a vehicle if you were afraid.
"I don't think that we should ever suggest to citizens that they go outside the regular channels or process for dealing with disputes," Chapel said. "I don't think it's up to citizens to start taking those matters in their hands."
For many reasons, SB 26 is a direct attack on citizens' First Amendments rights, said the Rev. Darryl Gray, a St. Louis civil rights activist who organized the protest against the bill.
"The bill is an attempt to make it easier for law enforcement officers to use excessive force and prosecution to charge protesters," Gray said.
The bill also would take control from local governments by limiting how much they can defund police.
SB 26, Gray pointed out, is an anti-defund police amendment. In other words, if a community should choose to cut funding for police departments by 12 percent over a five-year aggregate, any taxpayer within that community may file an injunction against the community.
And the state may withhold resources from the community, he said. The state may say if a community surpasses the 12 percent limit, it may take away state benefits or funding.
"Most of us believe that's extortion," Gray said. "Municipalities have a right to govern their own budgets."
The amendment, he said, further conceals or muddies the public's view of investigations into police misconduct.
"We submit that the burden to prosecute police is already almost impossible," Gray said. "So now you can do investigations behind closed doors, with no accountability and no transparency."
The bill would add the offense of institutional vandalism should a person vandalize any public monument or structure on public property or owned by a public entity. That offense is currently limited to churches, synagogues and other places of worship, cemeteries, mortuaries, schools, and motor vehicles owned by schools.
State Rep. Ashley Bland-Manlove, D-Kansas City, chairwoman of the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus, said the caucus wants to focus on criminal justice reform but also wants to pay attention to education, investment, civic engagement, "and all the areas that encompass social justice."
Confederate statues and other monuments would get greater protection under the bill, too. The measure would make damaging public monuments a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail for the first offense and up to four years in prison if the memorial is worth at least $750. The punishment goes up to as much as seven years in prison for monuments worth $5,000 or more.
"We know that the vandalism part came from defacing Confederate monuments," Bland-Manlove said. "I truly wish that America would do what Germany has done and put those monuments in a museum."
We do not have to erase that history but can learn from it, she continued. To say that people cannot impede traffic is an injustice that makes her blood boil, Bland-Manlove said.
Oftentimes, people have had to go into the street to spark a change, she said, and listed incidents over the past 100 years in which thousands of people have marched and found justice.
"I'm really ashamed that we have to be here on a day like today," said Linden Bowie, president of the Missionary Baptist State Convention. "The assault that is ongoing against human rights — especially our First Amendment rights — is atrocious."
The proposed legislation is a "knee-jerk reaction" to public protests, he said, adding lawmakers should not be using their positions in the Capitol to limit people's use of peaceful protests.
"For them to come to (the Capitol) and throw a blanket over the entire state because somebody was upset that some protest went on in their community," Bowie said, "that's not what this is all about. We should never exercise this kind of power for some personal — or some local — gain."
The legislation also would require offenders who commit dangerous felonies against police, firefighters or other first responders to serve their full sentence without the opportunity for probation.
Another provision sets up guidelines for internal reviews of possible police misconduct, which is aimed at ensuring the process is fair to the officers under investigation.
The bill would set a 90-day limit for internal investigations of alleged police misconduct, with exceptions. Among other provisions, the measure would make all records of those internal police investigations closed to the public.
News Tribune reporter Joe Gamm and Summer Ballentine of the Associated Press contributed to this article.