8/2016 Update: The charge charge of “terrorism hoax” was eventually dropped, and two and a half years after their arrest, Stephenson and Warner were found not guilty of the lesser charge of disorderly conduct.
Last month, Oklahoma City police charged a pair of environmental activists with staging a “terrorism hoax” after they unfurled a pair of banners covered in glitter—a substance local cops considered evidence of a faux biochemical assault.
Activists Moriah Stephenson and youth pastor Stefan Warner were among a dozen members of the Great Plains Tar Sands Resistance and Cross Timbers Earth First! protesting at the headquarters of fossil fuel giant Devon Energy. Activists targeted Devon due to its involvement in fracking and tar sands development and its ties with TransCanada and the Keystone XL pipeline.
When the two unfurled their colorful banner from the second floor of the Devon Tower atrium, glitter dust fell off and fluttered to the floor. The two were asked to leave, and business went on as usual in the food court below. Moriah and Stefan joined the protesters outside the building and were astonished to be arrested on terrorism charges a little while later.
How did the stuff of kindergarten art projects get turned into terrorist contraband? How did a traditional non-violent protest tactic generate charges of terrorism?
Constitutional lawyer Doug Parr thinks the police over-reaction is likely a result of collusion between TransCanada and the local Joint Terrorism Task Force, which includes two members of the Oklahoma City Police Department. In June last year, the group Bold Nebraska obtained copies of TransCanada presentations to law enforcement through an open-records request. The presentations profile anti-Keystone activists with photographs and personal descriptions and explicitly advocate for charging the nonviolent protesters with terrorism-related offenses. One presentation suggested law enforcement officers contact district attorneys for “information regarding the applicability of state or federal anti-terrorism laws prohibiting sabotage or terroristic acts against critical infrastructures”.
Apparently, TransCanada has been engaging law enforcement across the Midwest and South where they hope to push Keystone XL through, despite significant opposition from landowners and communities. Oklahoma activists were inspired to file their own public records request and discovered that TransCanada held a strategy session with the Oklahoma Fusion Center in April 2013, and that police had infiltrated an activist training retreat.
In Oklahoma, a conviction for a “terrorist hoax” – defined as “the willful conduct to simulate an act of terrorism” – is punishable with a prison sentence of up to 10 years. Parr, who is representing the protestors, has never seen this in has thirty years of experience in civil disobedience cases in Oklahoma City. “To my knowledge,” Parr stated, “it is the first time that any of these statutes in Oklahoma have been used with regard to protest activity.” It’s also the “first time terrorist charges” have been “used as a basis for an arrest” against individuals protesting the Keystone XL pipeline.
But this isn’t an isolated incident. The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act has also been used to criminalize activists with ‘terrorism’ charges. However, as reported in Al Jazeera America, the intensification of criminal prosecutions of environmental protests is a nationwide trend (we’ll pause here and note that environmental protesters aren’t the only ones facing absurd criminal charges for protest activity).
This year Oregon considered legislation labeling the environmental protest technique of tree-sitting as terrorism, punishable with felonies and mandatory minimum sentences. Texas law enforcement has increasingly used the statute “unlawful use of a criminal instrument” to jail environmental protesters using handcuffs and PVC pipes to link themselves together. Al Jazeera America also reported that thirteen state legislatures have considered model legislation that borrows the legal framework of the Patriot Act to criminalize “interference” with business involved in energy and livestock. Recently, law enforcement in Ohio staged a counterterrorism drill to train first responders that involved a fake anti-fracking protest.
The Oklahoma District Attorney’s Office has not yet charged Moriah and Stefan, and attorney Doug Parr is optimistic that he will see the terrorism hoax charge for what it is, ridiculous. It would set a terrible precedent if the charges are allowed to stand, so we are encouraging you to make a quick phone call to District Attorney David Prater at 405-713-1600 asking him to affirm that he will not charge the two with the trumped up “terrorism hoax” charge.