Mass. Lawmakers Seek Crackdown On Highway Protests

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Some state lawmakers are proposing getting tougher on protesters who block highways following a demonstration that tied up rush hour traffic on Interstate 93 and diverted an ambulance.

The proposals, submitted before Friday's bill-filing deadline at the Statehouse, could increase fines or lengthen jail sentences for demonstrators.

Rep. Colleen Garry, a Democrat from Dracut, proposed making it a felony to block highways. She told the Lowell Sun she was furious about the Thursday morning protests that blocked two sections of the heavily traveled highway through Boston, one north of the city and one south.

"I'm just outraged that people would be that reckless," Garry said. "Everyone has a right to protest, but to do that kind of thing in a highway or a roadway?"

Activists alleging police and state violence against black people attached themselves to concrete-filled barrels or chained themselves together using plastic pipes, causing miles-long backups. Grand jury decisions not to indict white police officers involved in the recent deaths of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City have led to protests nationwide.

Nearly 30 protesters were arrested and arraigned on charges including trespassing, disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and willfully obstructing an emergency vehicle.

State police said an ambulance transporting a seriously injured car crash victim to a Boston hospital was forced to divert to a hospital outside the city that did not have a trauma unit. The man survived.

State Sen. Richard Ross, a Wrentham Republican, filed legislation that would impose a minimum $5,000 fine and allow a jail sentence of up to six months for willfully trespassing on state highways. Current law allows for a maximum $50 fine and a jail term of no more than three months.

Ross said he respected lawful protests but drew the line when lives are put at risk.

"This is first and foremost a public safety issue, and the people of the commonwealth need to know we are doing everything in our power to discourage such reckless behavior," Ross told Attleboro's Sun Chronicle newspaper.

Gov. Charlie Baker said Friday he had not read any of the legislation but agreed in general with stiffer punishment for actions that might endanger public safety.

"I think raising the stakes in terms of the penalty for that kind of protest is a good idea," Baker said.

This article was originally published on January 16, 2015.