Lawmakers Are Trying to Criminalize Pipeline Protesters for "Conspiracy"
April 5, 2018
Justine Calma / Grist & Steve Hardy / The Advocate & Nikhil Swaminathan / Grist
Efforts to prosecute environmental activists with felony or eco-terrorism charges have intensified since Standing Rock. Those tensions are coming to a head in Louisiana and Minnesota, where newly introduced bills seek to make it a felony to plan to trespass, damage, or disrupt pipeline operations -- even if the individuals didn't physically participate or go through with the action.
Lawmakers Are Trying to
Criminalize Pipeline Protesters for "Conspiracy"
Justine Calma / Grist
(April 3, 2018) -- Efforts to prosecute environmental activists with felony or eco-terrorism charges have intensified since Standing Rock. Those tensions are coming to a head in Louisiana and Minnesota, where newly introduced bills seek to make it a felony to plan to trespass, damage, or disrupt pipeline operations -- even if the individuals didn't physically participate or go through with the action.
Under a bill introduced in Louisiana last week, people "conspiring" to impede pipeline construction could face up to 20 years in prison and pay up to $250,000. Similar legislation in Minnesota would allow an individual who "recruits, trains, aids, advises, hires, counsels, or conspires with" someone who damages a pipeline to be charged with a felony and up to 10 years in prison.
Comparable bills to protect pipelines as "critical infrastructure" have also cropped up in Oklahoma, Iowa, Ohio, Wyoming, and Pennsylvania.
But never fear -- amid the onslaught of anti-protest legislation, last week brought a first-of-its-kind legal victory for pipeline protesters in Boston. Thirteen individuals were acquitted after a judge agreed that their civil disobedience was "a necessity" because of climate change.
Environmentalists See Proposed Louisiana Law To Protect Pipelines and Penalize Protesters as Overreach
Steve Hardy / The Advocate
(March 31, 2018) -- Fearful of large-scale protests like those that surrounded the Dakota Access pipeline, Louisiana legislators have joined their counterparts in other states to introduce legislation that specifically protects pipelines and establishes penalties for people who seek to damage them.
Environmentalists consider the proposal a dangerous infringement on First Amendment rights, especially language that criminalizes "conspiracy" to damage a pipeline or even just trespass.
The issue came to a head in the last week, when work crews found damage to equipment being used to build Bayou Bridge, a controversial Louisiana pipeline owned by the same company that owns Dakota Access.
Up to that point, pipeline opponents had fought Bayou Bridge through courts, at permit hearings and via protests. Leaders of local environmental groups have denounced the destruction of property, but investigators are still trying to identify who caused the damage.
House Bill 727 was introduced Monday. Louisiana law specifically prohibits trespassing at various sites known as critical infrastructure. Power plants, oil refineries, chemical plants, water treatment facilities, natural gas terminals and the like are already considered critical infrastructure. The new law would add pipelines and construction areas for critical infrastructure sites.
The bill also lays out penalties for people who damage such sites -- one to 15 years in prison with a $10,000 fine or six to 20 years plus a $25,000 fine if the damage could threaten human life or disrupt site operations. Blowtorches, explosives and possibly firearms all could be used to damage pipelines, according to various sources.
Finally, it criminalizes "conspiracy" to commit trespass with up to a year behind bars. Conspiracy to commit damage would be punishable by one to 20 years and fines of up to $250,000, depending on whether the judge thinks the conspiracy would have threatened life or operations.
Louisiana must protect its energy sector workers, property owners and the pipelines that form the backbone of the state's economy, bill sponsor Rep. Major Thibaut, D-New Roads. Dozens of other legislators have signed on to co-sponsor the legislation.
"There's a right way to go about protesting and a wrong way. . . . One mishap puts us all in danger," Thibaut said.
And it's not just about industry workers, he said. He said protesters need an incentive not to damage property for their own safety as well.
Environmental leaders and activists have criticized the bill.
By criminalizing damage to pipelines, legislators would be heading down a slippery slope of going after the people trying to protect the land and water rather than the people who destroy them, said Cherri Foytlin, leader of the L'eau Est La Vie resistance camp.
"I'm not saying it's a bad thing, I'm just saying it's the wrong thing to focus on," she said.
Meg Logue, of 350 New Orleans, noted that laws already are in place against trespassing and damage to private property. She would know; she was one of three people arrested a few weeks ago for blocking a Bayou Bridge construction site in Assumption Parish.
The trio stood or sat in a construction area but did not damage any property, and Logue said she isn't interested in doing so. Like Foytlin, she sees the problem as a one of establishing priorities.
"That's what these pipeline companies are doing . . . they're poisoning the environment. Where's their (prison time)?" she asked.
Pam Spees is worried about the bill language concerning conspiracy. A lawyer for the Center for Constitutional Rights, Spees has represented various groups that have fought Bayou Bridge and state authorities in court.
The conspiracy provision allows law enforcement to arrest people before they have actually done anything wrong, even if they are just planning a nonviolent protest, she argued.
"That's a thought crime, basically. The thought is a felony. That's really alarming," she said.
The conspiracy aspect was included for a very specific purpose -- to allow authorities to prosecute people who might pay others to damage a pipeline, according to Tyler Gray, attorney for the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association.
Gray, who helped draft the bill, conceded that the conspiracy language is vague but said it is legally sound.
The legislation is needed because existing laws are not clear and law enforcement needs authority to separate peaceful assembly from criminal damage, Gray said.
According to This Lawsuit,
If You Opposed DAPL, You're a Terrorist
Nikhil Swaminathan / Grist
(Aug 25, 2017) -- The natural gas company Energy Transfer Partners has opened a new front in its ongoing battle with the environmental movement that opposed the Dakota Access Pipeline.
The Dallas-based company is now labeling many of those who opposed its pipeline "eco-terrorists." This from a company that employed a private security outfit to surveil and track members of the #noDAPL movement as though they were jihadists.
A lawsuit filed in federal court argues that GreenPeace, Earth First! and many other green groups engaged in racketeering, outlining a "criminal enterprise" involving a coordinated attack launched by "wolfpacks of corrupt" environmental groups -- using fake news and publicity stunts -- that bogged down its construction effort and cost the company millions of dollars.
The 187-page complaint name checks nearly every environmental group you could think of -- Earthjustice, The Sierra Club, Rainforest Action Network, 350.org, and on and on. The suit also names BankTrack, an organization that monitors the financial activities of commercial banks, as a defendant, as a result of its involvement in a recent movement to divest from banks that financed the pipeline-construction effort.
Members of the #noDAPL movement who spoke to Grist note that the complaint ignores the fact that the anti-pipeline effort was indigenous-led. The environmental groups primarily offered solidarity and some support -- Greenpeace, for example, donated a solar array to the protest camp.
A common refrain was that this complaint paints an alternative picture of reality. But it could also be the next step in a playbook that attempts to equate social justice campaigns with terrorism.
"This is full-scale, frontal military assault on the environmental community," says Daniel Sheehan, a constitutional lawyer and lead attorney for the Lakota People's Law Project. He notes that the lawsuit was filed by the law firm of President Donald Trump's personal lawyer, Marc Kasowitz.
Sheehan says that the racketeering charge is totally unsubstantiated and points out that the suit centers primarily around defamation claims. It accuses the environmental groups of launching a campaign of misinformation, including spreading lies about how the pipeline was routed, that it would contribute to climate change, and the likelihood that it would leak. (By late May, there were three known leaks.)
Sheehan says the lawsuit was the latest salvo in a so-called "public diplomacy campaign," which began with the company's hiring of the private security firm TigerSwan last fall.
As reported by Grist and The Intercept, TigerSwan portrayed the #noDAPL movement participants as, in Sheehan's words, "an armed enemy that is threatening their physical facility." That framing, he says, helped local law enforcement see protesters as violent adversaries. This lawsuit continues the narrative.
"They leap on Greenpeace because that's who most of their constituents recognize as the flagship of the environmentalist movement," Sheehan says.
Sheehan notes that many consider Earth First! -- whose motto is "No Compromise in Defense of Mother Earth" -- to be a radical group, so that might be why the Florida-based organization was added to the complaint. However, he says, "they were nowhere to to be seen" at Standing Rock.
Tara Houska, a tribal attorney and national campaigns director at the indigenous environmental nonprofit Honor the Earth called the complaint an example of a "SLAPP suit," which stands for "strategic lawsuit against public participation."
"It's essentially a way to try to silence free speech by trying to cost the defendant -- organizations or movements or individuals, sometimes -- money," she says.
Among a litany of claims, the suit accuses the environmental law firm Earthjustice of challenging the US Army Corps of Engineers' approval of the pipeline on behalf of the Standing Rock Sioux as a way for the nonprofit to generate donations, by "aggressively publicizing" its association with the anti-pipeline effort.
The complaint refers to Earthjustice's legal action as a "curtain raiser" for the #noDAPL movement -- which the document calls "a sensational production of an international media spectacle."
"You see this characterization of big green groups trying to take advantage of the tribe and organizations on the ground," Houska says. "It is really patronizing and condescending."
In response to charges that the suit is an attempt to muzzle free speech, Energy Transfer Partners' attorney Michael J. Bowe, of the law firm Kasowitz, Benson, Torres, told Grist in a statement:
Only people who think you should be able to say with impunity anything, about anyone no matter how false would think this is a frivolous suit. Lies are not protected speech. Neither is destroying property and assaulting people.
It was demonstrably false to claim ETP was building on Native American land, was destroying sacred sites, had not exhaustively consulted with all relevant tribes, and employed violence on peaceful protesters.
And it's demonstrably true that protesters destroyed property and assaulted employees and law enforcement. None of that is legitimate, protected speech, and, frankly, it serves no real environmental interest.
Anthony Diggs, the CEO of Veterans Stand, a group of ex-military personnel who joined the pipeline protests, says, "The only terrorists I saw during my time at Standing Rock were the law enforcement."
The former combat veteran who was previously deployed to Fallujah spent several weeks at Standing Rock this past winter. He recalls that officers constantly called protesters -- including him -- as "eco-terrorists" throughout his time in camp.
"If they set the legal precedent that people who were in that peaceful gathering were terrorists, that's trouble for the social justice movement," Diggs says.
Dallas Goldtooth, the national "Keep It In The Ground" campaigner for the Indigenous Environmental Network and a member of this year's Grist 50, says this lawsuit shows the power of the movement that took hold at Standing Rock.
The #noDAPL effort, he explains, offered people a chance to express support for a more sustainable future -- a future that threatens the business prospects of companies like Energy Transfer Partners.
"They're scared -- we're affecting their bottom line," Goldtooth says. "The story we're bringing to the table is infectious, and it's beautiful."
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