An Indiana lawmaker says disturbing newscasts of chaotic and sometimes violent protests across the United States helped lead him to propose a bill that would direct police to use "any means necessary" to break up mass gatherings that block traffic.
"I don't care if the folks want to be 10 deep on the sidewalks, I want the streets opened up," state Sen. Jim Tomes, R-Wadesville, said Wednesday during a packed committee hearing at the Statehouse. "This idea of spontaneous getting out in the streets and bringing things to a grinding halt? That just doesn't cut it."
Critics say the bill raises "serious constitutional questions" that likely impinge on First Amendment rights. And they say it could be used to justify brutal tactics, similar to those used on black civil rights activists in the 1960s. The First Amendment forbids laws that prohibit "the right of the people peaceably to assemble."
But Tomes said that protester-instigated traffic obstructions create a nuisance, at the least, and could have graver consequences if an ambulance was prevented from reaching a hospital, or a firetruck was delayed in reaching a fire.
When asked, Tomes could not cite specific instances where protesters prevented or delayed an emergency response. But he said he's seen troubling scenes on the nightly news and thinks people are overcomplicating the issue.
"People get off track and get off on sidebars on this. It's just to get the streets opened up for traffic flow, for emergency personnel, for commerce — that's all," said Tomes, who added that he thinks protesters should get a permit if they want to block-off a street.
As written, the bill would give authorities 15 minutes to "dispatch all available law enforcement officers" after receiving a report of 10 or more people illegally blocking traffic "with directions to use any means necessary to clear the roads."
The Senate's Local Government Committee deferred action on the bill until a later date, and committee chairman Sen. James Buck, R-Kokomo, said the measure is not likely to pass out of his committee unless changes are made. The hearing was packed with activists who at times mocked and laughed at Tomes' proposal. At least six Indiana State Troopers were on hand, monitoring the meeting.
Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Portage, questioned Tomes inclusion of the phrase "by any means necessary" while displaying historical pictures of police cracking down on protesters. She alluded to tactics used by police during the civil rights era, including Bull Connor, the segregationist former Public Service Commissioner of Birmingham, Alabama, who oversaw the use of firehoses and police dogs on activists.
"I'm afraid that what you are doing is setting up the potential here where if you have a modern day Bull Connor, he would love to be able to point and say 'Well, the General Assembly told me to use any means necessary to get these people out of the street,'" said Steve Key, executive director of the Hoosier State Press Association, who added that the measure raises "serious constitutional questions."
Buck drew the committee hearing to a close without hearing testimony from activists who opposed the bill, but said their presence spoke loudly. He also noted that no one beside Tomes signed up to speak in favor of the proposal.
Still, Tomes believes many are on his side and said he was surprised that such a big deal was made of his proposal.
"You're stuck in traffic—would it upset you?" he said.