MYNORTHWEST POLITICS

New state bill aims to crack down on protesters blocking highways

Jan 11, 2024, 7:39 PM

protesters state highways...

Protesters blocking Northbound Interstate 5 in Seattle last weekend. (Photo courtesy of KIRO 7)

(Photo courtesy of KIRO 7)

Block the freeway, go to jail.

That’s the idea behind a new bill in the Washington State Legislature in response to the protesters who blocked Interstate 5 (I-5) North in Seattle for about five hours last Saturday. 

House Rep. Andrew Barkis (R-Olympia), the bill’s sponsor, said that can’t be allowed to happen again. 

“Why is it that the people of Seattle and ordinary citizens have to suffer?” Barkis told KIRO Newsradio this week. “The law is not being enforced, those people were trespassing on the freeway and lives could be lost.”

More on I-5 protest: Protesters blocked I-5 in downtown Seattle at Pine Street

House Bill 2358, filed on Thursday, would inflict tougher penalties on those taking part in demonstrations that obstruct state highways.  

The bill would make it a gross misdemeanor for three or more people to block traffic without legal authority. That would be upped to a felony if there is determined to be a danger to public safety, specifically if the obstruction created a risk of injury, impeded an ambulance, or the individuals refused to disperse upon lawful order. 

“It is time to reclaim our roads and send a clear message to those who wantonly break the law and endanger others: Washington will not tolerate anarchy on our highways,” Barkis said.  

Thirty-five other lawmakers have co-sponsored the bill, including Democratic Rep. David Hackney (D-Tukwila). It has been referred to the House Transportation Committee, where it awaits further action. 

Last Saturday’s protest, calling for a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war, shut down I-5 just south of Mercer Street from approximately 1 p.m. until 6 p.m. It caused traffic to back up six miles at one point. No arrests have been made yet.  

Washington State Patrol (WSP) — which has faced criticism in its handling of the incident — admitted it was largely unprepared for the “sheer size of the crowd.” Spokesperson Chris Loftis told KIRO Newsradio there were more than 500 protesters and 12 cars used in the blockade.

“(The group was) well organized and used tactics that made the blockage very difficult to clear,” Loftis said.

Agency’s defense: WSP defends actions during protesters’ 5-hour takeover

One such tactic included abandoning their vehicles on the freeway. 

WSP Chief John R. Batiste released his own statement late Wednesday night, saying the demonstrators involved will be held responsible.

“Intentional disruption of traffic flow on such a vital roadway puts both people’s lives and their livelihoods at risk,” he wrote. “It is dangerous and simply cannot be tolerated.” 

While he acknowledged that “civil disobedience is an important feature of democracy,” Batiste said there must be accountability. He also praised state and local law enforcement officers for their efforts, stating they prevented escalation of a situation that could have ended very badly. 

More from Kate Stone: Inslee accused of dishonesty over climate law’s impact on gas prices

WSP confirmed it continues to actively investigate several of the organizers of the protest and could potentially refer cases to the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.

You can read more of Kate Stone’s stories here. Follow Kate on X, formerly known as Twitter, or email her here.

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