Protesters marched onto Interstate 35 and blocked traffic during a protest near downtown Austin on May 30, 2020.

Protesters marched onto Interstate 35 and blocked traffic near downtown Austin last May, after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.

Credit: Courtesy of Dylan Manshack

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The Texas Senate voted 25-5 to pass a bill that would raise criminal penalties and require jail time for people who knowingly obstruct emergency vehicles from passing through a roadway or who block a hospital entrance. It now heads to the governor’s desk to be signed into law.

The bill is in response to last year’s nationwide protests against police brutality, which were sparked by the murder of George Floyd at the hands of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Massive protests erupted in major cities across the country, including in Texas, where demonstrators were arrested for allegedly damaging property or blocking roadways.

House Bill 9, which now heads to Gov. Greg Abbott, would make it a state jail felony for people who knowingly obstruct an emergency vehicle that has its lights flashing and sirens turned on. People could also face felony charges for obstructing the entrance of a licensed hospital. The Texas House passed the bill, 90-55, a few weeks ago.

Floyd’s murder, coupled with last year’s protests against police brutality, sparked waves of legislative attempts to reform policing in America, but the events also sparked GOP-led legislation that aims to crack down on protesters who demonstrate on highways in several states. In Iowa and Oklahoma, Republican lawmakers passed bills that would grant immunity to drivers who strike and injure protesters on public streets.

In the aftermath of an unruly police brutality protest last May at the Texas Capitol, the Texas Department of Public Safety devoted hundreds of hours in tracking down the people who protested, which led to more than a dozen arrests. The DPS investigation was highly publicized, and lawyers called it a political “witch hunt.”

Abbott indicated his support for HB 9, by state Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, in a tweet May 5.

“Texas will always defend the right to peacefully protest, but blocking roadways & preventing emergency vehicle access won’t be tolerated,” Abbott said. “Proud to support @StephanieKlick’s #HB9 which creates a criminal penalty for protestors who block traffic & emergency vehicles on TX highways.”

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