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Washington legislation would increase penalties on highway-blocking protests

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(The Center Square) – “We’re just done.”

That’s what Rep. Andrew Barkis, R-Auburn, is hearing from constituents about protesters blocking freeways.

He was referring to Saturday’s Interstate 5 blockade in Seattle by pro-Palestinian supporters who halted northbound traffic for more than five hours, causing a six-mile backup.

Videos on social media show hundreds of protestors on the highway, chanting phrases such as “Hey hey, ho ho, the occupation has got to go!”

Barkis is the prime sponsor of House Bill 2358 that would increase penalties for protesters who block state highways.

“This protest was organized and supported and led illegally onto the freeway, using unlawful tactics to stop traffic in downtown Seattle,” Barkis said.

Barkis told The Center Square two things struck him as he watched Saturday’s events unfold.

“One, why are they allowing this, that was my first thought,” he said. “And two, I could see sitting in the middle, an ambulance, and who knows what’s going on in that ambulance, a cardiac arrest, a woman in birth?”

He continued, “It doesn’t matter, it’s being blocked illegally.”

Barkis came into Monday’s first day of session fired up to take on the issue freeway-blocking protesters.

“What is the law right now?” he asked rhetorically. “And it turns out it is against the law [to block the freeway], but it’s pretty weak.”

“People know there’s not much of a consequence to make it not worth doing the crime or the action,” he added.

Barkis’s bill HB 2358 would increase penalties for protesters who block state highways.

HB 2358 would elevate the charge of blocking state highways to a Class C felony.

“That’s a pretty big penalty,” Barkis said, especially if the obstruction created a risk of injury, impeded an ambulance, or if individuals refused to disperse upon being ordered to do so.

Those with prior convictions would also face a minimum fine of $6,125 and 60 days in jail.

“If you’re a known organizer in charge of this whole thing, you also are subject to a Class C felony with an additional jail time penalty,” Barkis reiterated.

“It looks like the people behind this [Saturday’s protest] have been behind other protests like this, including blocking the freeway before, so if this passes maybe, just maybe people will think twice before doing this,” Barkis said.

Barkis has been in contact with Washington State Patrol about the incident.

News reports indicate prior to the protest, WSP had gotten unverified reports of a plan to block the freeway.

“Without knowing a time, location, or who was involved, we developed a contingency that prioritized public and traffic safety,” WSP said in a news release.

As Saturday’s demonstration began to ramp up, eight protesters reportedly chained themselves in a way designed to keep police from safely cutting them free. WSP noted that “dealing with this type of device requires highly skilled and trained personnel and are among the most complex and difficult to resolve safety.”

The legislation to crack down on protesters that block freeways has bipartisan support but has not yet been scheduled to receive a public hearing in committee.

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