Nine people, including an independent journalist, have been arrested under a controversial new law in Louisiana that increases penalties for trespassing near oil and gas pipelines. While the circumstances of the arrests appear murky- three of the activists say they were not trespassing when they were forcefully arrested by off duty police officers working on behalf of the pipeline developer- the arrests are considered among the first related to a bevy of anti-protest measures that have popped up in state legislatures across the country.
Designed to create fear and confusion and suppress dissent, over 60 bills have been introduced by lawmakers since 2016 that escalate penalties for participating in or organizing peaceful protests that turn disruptive and restrict where and how protesters can demonstrate.
The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL) has created a searchable database tracking the status of anti-protest legislation and executive orders. The most egregious measures include:
- Louisiana’s new “critical infrastructure” law, which now makes it a felony with up to five years in prison for “unauthorized entry” onto a pipeline site. It is strikingly similar to energy-company backed laws recently adopted in Oklahoma and Iowa and still under consideration by Ohio and Pennsylvania. (it’s almost as if these bills come from the same place…)
- In North Dakota, in the wake of the Standing Rock demonstrations against the Dakota Access Pipeline, the state passed three new laws that increase sanctions for and broaden the definitions of a riot and criminal trespass. Another law targets protesters wearing “masks, hood and face coverings.”
- Missouri lawmakers passed a law that places arbitrary restrictions on public employee unions and prohibits labor agreements from allowing any kind of striking or picketing, severely undermining the power of unions.
Americans are right to be concerned and outraged, especially because these reactionary bills come amid a revival of disruptive (but peaceful) protests across the U.S. Nearly one million students walked out of class recently to signal their frustration with the status quo on gun violence. Massive demonstrations have taken place in dozens of cities in response to the killing of unarmed black men by law enforcement. And the grassroots movement behind #NODAPL led to thousands of people engaging in protest and acts of civil disobedience to stop the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota and surrounding states.
So, when South Dakota lawmakers quickly passed a law granting the governor new powers to arbitrarily limit protest on public lands and roadways and broaden the criminal trespass statute, it was not seen as a coincidence. “We see all of these bills,” Johnson Bridgwater, head of Oklahoma’s Sierra Club, told the Intercept, “as nothing more than corporate America being fearful of how successful the Standing Rock protests were.”
While the majority of these draconian measures have been rejected, including ones in Arizona, New Jersey, North Carolina, Georgia, Oregon, and Wisconsin that would have expanded the definition of “riot” or “domestic terrorism” to include protest activities, several states (and Congress) are still considering measures that would turn acts of civil disobedience, like trespassing, into felonies with serious consequences.
Anti-protest legislation still being debated:
Face covering bills
- Congress: The “Unmask Antifa Act of 2018” would make it a federal crime to wear a mask or other disguise while protesting in a “threatening” or “intimidating” way.
- Ohio’s HB 423 would “create the crime of masked intimidation” by broadly prohibiting the wearing of masks or other disguises in certain circumstances during protests, subject to up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Protest as crime bills
- Virginia’s HB 1601 would allow state officials to designate groups as a “domestic terrorist organization” and then ban members of a designated groups from meeting in groups of three or more persons.
- Pennsylvania’s SB 754 would permit local authorities to seek restitution from protesters convicted of a misdemeanor or felony in the course of a protest or demonstration, including paying overtime for law enforcement
- Massachusetts: HB 916 sets harsh new penalties for individuals who impede traffic in the course of a protest or demonstration, including up to $5,000 fine and a year in jail.
Corporate-backed infrastructure bills
- Ohio’s SB 250 Would increase the penalties for protests near oil and gas pipelines by expanding the definitions of “criminal trespass” and “criminal mischief.” The bill also imposes fines on organizations found to be complicit in the trespass or mischief offenses.
- Pennsylvania’s SB 652 makes it a felony to trespass in a “critical infrastructure facility,” which is broadly defined to include natural gas facilities and pipelines.
Speech on campus bills
- Illinois’ HB2939 and Michigan’s SB 350 would create mandatory penalties that could be applied to peaceful protesters on college and university campuses.
The fact that they were introduced is troublesome and dangerous. It is through protest, an essential part of American life,that we are given the ability to speak out and challenge events and injustices. That power should be protected, not infringed upon, so that it can continue to shape and influence our American polity.