17 States Criminalize Protests Targeting Fossil Fuel Infrastructure

Interview with Emma Fisher, deputy director with Climate Cabinet, conducted by Scott Harris

Republican-controlled state legislatures across the U.S. have passed anti-protest laws, largely in response to indigenous and environmental activist-led nonviolent civil disobedience protests targeting fossil fuel infrastructure projects. According to a report from the group Climate Cabinet, since 2018, 17 states have passed “critical infrastructure” laws seeking to criminalize constitutionally protected rights to free speech and assembly.

The laws passed in 17 states, including Oklahoma, North and South Dakota, Kansas, West Virginia and Indiana, can now charge climate activists engaged in protest with felonies imposing penalties of up to 10 years in prison and a $1 million fine. The corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council, known as ALEC, helped draft this model legislation that criminalizes protests against fossil fuel pipelines, gas terminals and other oil and gas expansion projects in 24 states, all under the guise of protecting critical infrastructure.

Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Emma Fisher, deputy director with Climate Cabinet, who summarizes her group’s recent report on states criminalizing protest against fossil fuel infrastructure that are clearly aimed at suppressing indigenous and environmental activists’ effective opposition to oil and gas projects.

EMMA FISHER: Our report found that since 2016, in response to high-profile protests against the Dakota Access pipeline, we’ve seen a coordinated effort to pass bills that criminalize protests against pipelines and fossil fuel infrastructure in states across the U.S.

Just since 2016, 24 states have introduced these critical infrastructure bills and 17 of them have passed, many of them using a model bill which is essentially copy and pasted between states and written by the right-wing political organization, the American Legislative Exchange Council, or more often known as ALEC, which has pushed other anti-protests, pro-fossil fuels and Stand Your Ground laws across the U.S.

But these bills, specifically these critical infrastructure bills use that vague term.  But they’re specifically designed to deter protests against pipelines and fossil fuel infrastructure. And these protests have historically been led by indigenous activists, water protectors and other frontline communities. And these bills severely threaten people’s free speech, protesters’ safety and our ability to tackle climate change because protest has been a successful tactic in slowing the build out of new fossil fuel infrastructure.

So, at Climate Cabinet, we’re really worried about how these types of coordinated legislative efforts at the state level can spread quickly across states, even without federal action — which is what we saw here severely threatening our democracy and our ability to act on climate change.

SCOTT HARRIS: Go into some detail, if you would, about the various harsh penalties that are invoked here in these new state laws. It’s quite alarming when you read the summary of your report, which talks about up to 10 years in prison or $1,000,000 fine. What’s the range of penalties here and what are the crimes that are being cited specifically that people have had to commit to be sentenced to these harsh penalties?

EMMA FISHER: Right. It is extremely concerning, especially because it’s important to note that, of course, trespassing and vandalizing any sort of property is already illegal, usually as a misdemeanor. And protesters and activists know that. But these bills really heighten those penalties and make it extremely dangerous and potentially life-altering to take part in one of these protests expressing free speech and the right to assemble.

So these bills heighten penalties for trespassing and for vandalism on critical infrastructure, which includes things like pipelines. The penalties can range from up to fines $10-$100,000 for trespassing or vandalism, depending on the state and range between six months to up to ten years in prison. It also includes really scary penalties for organizations which could be on the hook for supporting protesters or even communicating with protesters.

This is called vicarious liability and basically it could make it risky for environmental organizations to even communicate or try to help out activists that are taking part in these protests, which are known to slow the expansion of fossil fuels. And those fines can be up to $1,000,000 for those organizations aiding protesters.

SCOTT HARRIS: So, you know, in that case, you would have an organization be fearful they could be bankrupted by such a law if they lent any support or, as you said, communicated with people engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience. This country and the world, as a matter of fact, has a long history of social justice, protests and movements engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience to move society forward in a progressive direction.

And that has succeeded time and again all across this world. What are your concerns about people who strongly believe in a cause and choose to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience? What kind of chilling effect will these laws have? And is there any current evidence that these laws have, in fact, chilled or intimidated people from engaging in such action?

EMMA FISHER: I definitely agree with you. This country does have a long history of direct action and activism, leading to important social change. And it’s very scary that there’s this coordinated effort to criminalize that right and the ability to work to make this country better. And, you know, this is happening on fossil fuel pipeline protests. We’re seeing anti-protest laws as a backlash to the Black Lives Matter movement as well.

But specifically with these pipeline protests, critical infrastructure bills, one of the main issues that comes up is that they’re really vague and unclear, which makes it difficult for activists to have a clear sense of what risks they’re actually taking on when they choose to take part in a protest. And that contributes to the chilling effect because it’s unclear whether or not you will be penalized.

And we’ve seen activists arrested under these laws for activities that are actually still legal, but it’s just unclear. And the implementation is so difficult when the lives so vague. So, for example, in Louisiana, there’s an example of some activists that were staging a peaceful protest in kayaks fighting for clean water. Their actions were totally legal. They were allowed to be there. They weren’t doing anything besides peacefully protesting in kayaks. And they were arrested under felony charges.

Those charges were eventually dropped, but it still had the effect of suppressing their free speech and ability to assemble because this law was in place and was interpreted in a way that was maybe or maybe not how it was intended.

For more information, visit the Climate Cabinet at climatecabineteducation.org.

Listen to Scott Harris’ in-depth interview with Emma Fisher (16:35) and see more articles and opinion pieces in the Related Links section of this page.

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