Opponents of the bill, introduced by a Republican state senator, rushed to the general assembly in Indianapolis on Wednesday afternoon to attend a hearing for the legislation, arguing that it could give a green light to the police to shut down protests harshly “even to the point of costing lives”.
The proposed law, simply labelled Senate Bill 285, or SB 285, and designed to deal with “traffic obstruction by protestors” would go into effect in July if passed.
It calls for officials, such as a city mayor or county sheriff, to be required to quickly clear any mass traffic obstruction – defined as 10 or more protesters – blocking roads.
“A responsible public official shall, not later than 15 minutes after learning of a mass traffic obstruction in the official’s jurisdiction, dispatch all available law enforcement officers … with directions to use any means necessary to clear the roads of the persons unlawfully obstructing vehicular traffic,” the bill states.
The legislation was introduced by Republican senator Jim Tomes, who is known for his conservative agenda. His efforts have included making it easier for drunk drivers to get a gun license and a proposal to jail transgender people for up to a year if they are caught using public bathrooms matching their gender identity instead of the gender on their birth certificate.
Tomes introduced SB 285 earlier in January and the bill was given a hearing in committee on Wednesday afternoon.
“I find it very disturbing and I don’t see a need for this as we have had some large protests here but there was never any problem with them,” said Sue Ellen Braunlin, co-president of the Indiana religious coalition for reproductive justice.
Her organization posted on Twitter about the legislation, dubbing it the “block traffic and you die bill”.
Braunlin said various demonstrations in Indiana in recent times, including rallies by the Black Lives Matter movement and supporters demanding an end to racial discrimination and race-related police brutality, had passed off peacefully.
“We have stopped traffic for a short time during protests, with police cooperation. Often they will let us stop traffic and we have not had a problem. We’ve had a women’s rights march and a Black Lives Matter march and it was all very peaceful and coordinated with the police. This bill doesn’t make sense,” she said.
A request for comment from Tomes was met with a response from his office that the senator would probably issue a statement some time after the hearing.
Democrats in the state senate planned to attend the hearing on Wednesday afternoon to express opposition to the bill.
Braunlin said she believed the legislation was inspired by the fierce protests at Standing Rock in North Dakota against an oil pipeline planned to be installed close to Native American communities and their water source.
Law enforcement officers from Indiana joined police from other states that converged on the Dakota Access pipeline protests at Standing Rock in an effort to put down the growing protests as demonstrations turned violent last year.
“I think the new legislation would make protesting in Indiana very dangerous, even to the point of costing lives,” said Braunlin.
Author: Joanna Walters