"States Are Criminalizing Environmental Protest"

"In some states, protesting against an oil pipeline is a felony".

"When Miami-area artist and filmmaker Gina Cunningham discussed taking a road trip to North Dakota in 2016 with her adult children and her grandchildren, she had a very specific kind of American holiday in mind. The family packed their RV with camping gear and medical equipment, along with plenty of cash for bail and fines. They were heading to join the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, which was encroaching onto the Standing Rock Indian Reservation amid concerns that it threatened Sioux water sources and that the tribe was not fully consulted when officials rushed through the pipeline's approval. "The whole family agreed this was a time to bear witness," Cunningham said. "We were exercising our First Amendment rights to engage in protest."

A bout of the flu kept the grandkids and their mom from going, but Cunningham, her husband, and her son-in-law made it to Standing Rock for a week. At that point, the months-long clash had become a high-profile news event. Pipeline owner Energy Transfer Partners had brought in a private security company that had used attack dogs on the protesters, many of whom had needed to be treated for bites. The spectacle so rattled North Dakota lawmakers that they resolved to make sure it wouldn't happen again—by cracking down on demonstrators. Within a year, a raft of new legislation increased fines and penalties for taking part in a protest. Many of the misdemeanor charges Cunningham and her family had been ready to face would now be felonies. "That's overstepping people's constitutional rights, isn't it?" Cunningham asked.

That was only the beginning. Since the Dakota Access Pipeline conflict, 17 states have passed laws aimed at restricting protests, according to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL). Much of that legislation is aimed specifically at environmental protests, raising the penalties for gatherings that take place on "critical infrastructure" sites like pipelines. "This has been an ongoing trend since 2017," said Nicholas Robinson, a senior legal adviser with the ICNL's US program, which has been tracking the spread of these laws out of concern that they infringe on free-speech rights."

Tristram Korten reports for Sierra magazine September 17, 2023.

Source: Sierra, 09/18/2023