Apparently eager to embrace the vitriol that imbued the presidential election, state Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, says he plans to introduce a bill taking aim at “economic terrorism” during next year’s legislative session. He wants to create a class of crime for dealing with protesters who block traffic or block trains or otherwise slow anything that can be deemed as economic activity. The bill, he says, would classify the crime as a Class C felony, punishable by up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. It also would target those who financially support such protests.
It is not surprising to see the extreme rhetoric of presidential politics filter down to the state level, especially considering that Ericksen was Donald Trump’s deputy campaign director in Washington (Clark County legislator Don Benton headed the organization). Yet it is disappointing. And it calls for an examination of the many levels on which Ericksen’s proposal should be viewed as anathema.
To begin with, there already are laws in place to deal with those who move beyond peaceable assembly and into the realm of vandalism. More than 100 protesters were arrested when anti-Trump protests turned violent in Portland; more than 50 people were arrested for trespassing in May when they blocked railroad tracks while protesting near two oil refineries in Anacortes; five people were arrested in August for blocking tracks near Bellingham.
The punishment faced by those protesters is in line with the severity of the crimes, while Ericksen’s proposal would seek to establish Draconian penalties. By comparison, third-degree assault of a child also is a Class C felony; placing the blocking of railroad tracks on the same plane would be a miscarriage of justice.
In addition, the simple phrasing “economic terrorism” is an egregious attempt to stoke the fears of the public. Terrorism — real terrorism that seeks to kill and maim for political purposes — is a genuine concern in this country. But equating the blocking of traffic with such acts is a gross misnomer while using language that serves to distract from the true threat. State Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, told The Seattle Times, “I just think there is nothing more un-American than this kind of proposal. There is nothing more fundamental to our democracy than the right to protest things you think are wrong.”
Ericksen long has been supportive of the fossil-fuel industry, and investigations by the Associated Press have revealed that he receives far more largesse from lobbyists than any lawmaker in Washington. With his proposal having some chance of passing the Republican-controlled Senate but little chance of passing the Democrat-controlled House and no chance of surviving a veto from Gov. Jay Inslee, it would seem to be nothing more than shameless pandering to those who pay his bills.
Still, it is worthy of discussion, as our political divide is likely to continue as an essential talking point. Political dissent has a long and rich tradition in the United States, with the First Amendment guaranteeing “the right to peaceably assemble.” When such assembly stops being peaceable, there are laws designed to address the situation without demonizing the protesters as terrorists. It is worth noting that those who held lunch-counter sit-ins or marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., could have been charged with “economic terrorism” under the loose wording of Ericksen’s proposal.
Given all of that, Ericksen’s idea is a debasement of what makes America great.