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Missouri Senate bill aims to crack down on protesters who block roads

Published: Feb. 24, 2021 at 11:27 PM CST
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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (KY3) - A Missouri bill would crack down on protesters who block roads, and demonstrators who repeatedly block traffic could even face prison time.

Senate Bill 26 comes after numerous protests took place across the Ozarks and the country last summer. They followed the death of George Floyd.

Debate on the bill began Monday and continued through the night into Tuesday morning. Lawmakers softened penalties for blocking traffic after hours of negotiation between Republicans and Democrats.

Under the bill , blocking traffic illegally would first be punished as an infraction. The second offense would be a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail. A third strike would result in a felony and up to four years in prison.

Larry Flenoid helped organize protests in Springfield last summer and he’s not thrilled with the language.

”It’s just another way for them to you know, quiet our voices and strip our rights away,” Flenoid said.

But supporters of the bill - say it is not about trying to take away anyone’s freedom of speech. Instead, they say it would be to make sure that freedom does not come at the expense of other’s personal safety.

Flenoid said many feel blocking roadways is the only way to spark change.

”Because when you block people, you kind of make them, not really, you force them to pay attention to what you have to say and what you have going on and to the cause that you out there in the street for,” the local activist said.

Supporters blocking roadways illegally is too dangerous and could lead to injuries or even worse.

“We’ve seen instances of individuals moving onto heavily traveled roadways putting themselves, motorists, bystanders (and) a number of folks in imminent physical danger,” said Republican bill sponsor Sen. Bill Eigel, of Weldon Spring. “We’re trying to discourage that behavior, not because we don’t want folks to exercise their freedom of speech, but freedom of speech cannot be done at the personal safety and expense of another.”

Other lawmakers and supporters say it could potentially prevent emergency responders from moving around and saving lives.

Flenoid said that is something he has always taken into consideration when organizing a demonstration.

“I can’t speak for none outside of Springfield, I can only speak for those that I took part in,” he said. “If we get that and we are out in the streets, then of course we are not going to block emergency services. We have nothing against emergency services and we’re not trying to have anyone lose their life.”

Despite his opposition to the bill, Flenoid said coordinating demonstrations with local law enforcement, like he did over the summer in Springfield, is usually the best way to go.

”Yes, it was a common ground,” he said. “So not only were we able to make our voices heard, but it also kept everyone involved safe.”

During that particular large protest that Flenoid helped organize, Springfield Police helped block off certain streets. Protesters also had Park Central Square in downtown blocked off with the help of police.

The legislation also targets calls to “defund the police” by racial justice advocates. Private citizens could sue Missouri cities and other municipalities that decrease funding for police agencies by more than 12% compared to other departments if the bill becomes law.

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.

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 needs another vote of approval in the state Senate before it can go to the House for consideration.

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