As British playwright and political agitator George Bernard Shaw noted, “You don’t make progress by standing on guard, but by attacking, and getting well-hammered yourself.”
That certainly has been true of US progressives. We never could advance our people’s “small-d” democratic goals by idly hoping the established powers will do it for us. After all, they’re the ones doing it to us–imposing plutocratic rule to increase their fortunes at our expense. Rather, it is audacious American rebels who’ve incrementally advanced our democratic possibilities by defying the repressive laws of the authoritarian order.
In fact, Protest is us! And it ain’t beanbag. The history of US democracy is the story of fed-up, gutsy people engaged in wave after wave of confrontation with haughty corporate, political, and social powers that forcibly suppress our democratic will. Because of that suppression, effective public protest is not for the meek. By its nature, it is disobedient, passionate, aggressive, disruptive, and sometimes bloody. That’s the price of progress.
Indeed, there would be no USA if outraged colonials had merely sent missives to King George saying, Please stop doing these bad things to us. Consider a historic protest we now celebrate as a glorious, seminal moment in our opposition to British autocracy: the Boston Tea Party. In 1773, Sam Adams and an audacious band of Massachusetts rebels clambered aboard three British East India Company trading ships moored in Boston Harbor. Rebelling against an English decree giving that corporation monopoly power over tea imports to America, Adams and other “Sons of Liberty” illegally trespassed on the corporate property, seized its cargo of 342 chests of tea, and hurled them into the harbor.
It was an act of constructive destruction and iconic defiance of plutocratic authority, which rallied public support and helped spark the American Revolution. Most significantly, it set an ethical standard for legitimate protest in our country that for generations since has guided abolitionists, suffragists, unionists, populists, immigrants, feminists, environmentalists, and other democracy activists. Protest is fully ingrained in the American character.
Suspending the right to protest
Add to America’s panorama of momentous protests another dramatic action: On September 12, 2019, a team of bold environmental advocates literally put their lives on the line to confront the global crisis of industrially induced climate change. You might not have heard about it, for their protest was barely noticed by the purveyors of mass media, who were busy chasing the latest nonsensical tweets of the artful dodger in the White House. Yet it certainly ranks as a captivating, and still unfolding, story of principled dissent.
The action involved 22 Greenpeace USA activists from 13 states and the District of Columbia. Using static lines attached to a huge bridge, 11 of the activists suspended themselves 150 feet above the Houston Ship Channel and shut down Big Oil’s largest US outlet for climate-destroying petrochemicals. The dangling protesters closed the channel, halting oil tankers owned by the likes of the Exxon and Shell et al. that move 700,000 barrels of oil every day from the second-largest refinery complex in the US. Some 18 hours passed before, as reported by KHOU-TV news, an over-the-top cluster of police power–including riot-clad sheriff officers, FBI agents, members of the Coast Guard, local fire departments, and the Texas Department of Transportation–was able to arrest the activists.
There is an even deeper story, however, for the action brought to light an especially devious effort by establishment autocrats to repress our people’s fundamental freedom to dissent against corporate abuse. Soon after their arrests, the intrepid climate defenders found themselves suspended in an even more precarious way: Their First Amendment freedoms of speech and assembly were subverted by a new, little-known law passed at the behest of the very same corporate powers they had dared to protest.
Unbeknownst to the general public (and still largely undiscovered by national media), oil giants and other multinational corporations have quietly colluded with the legislators and governors they’ve purchased. Together, they’ve rammed through a series of autocratic state laws criminalizing our right to protest at sites they imperiously designated “critical infrastructure.” Encompassed in the sweeping lockdown inherent in this often-specious designation are public demonstrations that the sneaky new laws defined as “criminal interference.” In fact, the thing they interfere with is the hallowed pursuit of profits by myriad corporate scoundrels including frackers, mine operators, pipeline builders, chemical plants, refineries, electrical utilities, TV facilities, and factory farms. (Yes, a corporate hog factory is now designated “critical infrastructure”!)
The new laws punish such protest harshly. The Greenpeace activists, along with 20 others also arrested, now face felony charges, years in prison, and a permanent criminal record for violating Texas law by “interrupting” Big Oil’s operations–peacefully, for a few hours. So rather than protecting our fragile environment and Constitutional rights, America’s power elites are fabricating “property right” laws to protect corporate profiteers … from us!
These protest prohibitions have already been enacted by corporate-hugging politicos in Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Texas–and they’re presently being pushed in Colorado, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, with more expected in state legislatures during the 2020 sessions. When did We The People–in those states or anywhere else–vote to outlaw peaceful public protest against corporate excesses? When did we demand that lawmakers make it a felony crime for you and me to assemble at corporate sites to object boisterously, creatively, and effectively against profiteers who’re running roughshod over our values, livelihoods, environment, and … well, our lives? Of course, the answer is: Never. This is lawmaking by sneak attack, with craven, for-sale governors and legislators repressing The People’s rights without informing us, much less seeking our consent. King George III would be proud.
Who initiated these anti-democratic laws? Corporate lobbyists, that’s who. They’ve been working through ALEC, the secretive American Legislative Exchange Council that convenes closed-door tete-a-tete sessions conjoining its corporate members in a nationwide network of whorish state lawmakers willing to turn tricks for them. In January 2018, one of ALEC’s mating sessions produced a model bill called the “Critical Infrastructure Protection Act,” which would effectively sledgehammer peaceful protestors accused of corporate wrongdoing as though they were terrorists. Suddenly, virtually identical versions of ALEC’s pre-fab bill were introduced by its bawdy house legislators across the country.
To give cover to this self-serving repression, the corporate crowd has cooked up a public safety hoax. Colluding with the Trump regime, the FBI, unscrupulous media players like Sean Hannity, and ALEC itself, they’ve been running a fear-mongering campaign, claiming with hyperbolic fervor that hordes of eco-radicals are roving the land, intent on destroying America’s corporate infrastructure. This alliance cites–as a prime example of “destructive trespassers” interfering with corporate operations–the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s courageous standoff last year against the Dakota Access Pipeline that was being shoved through their sacred lands. Never mind that the pipeline corporation was the actual trespasser, the plutocratic screechers insist the poor profiteers must be protected by extraordinary anti-protest measures.
The Koch brothers even wrapped themselves in the cynical claim that they are concerned about “the safety of those exercising their right to demonstrate.” Because the protesters could get hurt, clucked a Koch lobbyist, criminal laws are needed to keep them from protesting. And, as ALEC was shopping its bill from state to state, it issued a bogeyman letter from fossil fuel giants urging lawmakers around the country to curtail the “growing and disturbing trend” of enviro-extremists attacking infrastructure. To buff its case, ALEC listed five such assaults. One involved a mild-mannered guy who merely cranked shut a pipeline valve in North Dakota, temporarily stopping the flow of toxic tar sands oil through the Keystone Pipeline. The other four cases were simply examples of incompetent vandalism by individuals who had mental health issues or were company insiders with workplace grievances.
These corporate protection laws are nothing but fraudulent scare tactics. Their backers say they’re necessary to prevent violence and vandalism. But wait! Stiff laws are already on the books against those crimes. And wait again! Those arrested in September’s Greenpeace protest committed no violence or vandalism.
The Texas hustle
In the last 25 years, the Lone Star State has become a protracted experiment in bad government, with top officials routinely kowtowing to corporate money–the people be damned. Thus, for a clear example of how today’s swarm of anti-democratic “critical infrastructure” laws came to infest our nation, look to Texas.
Note that no gubernatorial or legislative candidates in Texas have run on, or even mentioned, the absurd notion that We The People should be forced to surrender any of our Constitutional rights in deference to corporate supremacy. Nonetheless, shortly after the 2019 legislative session convened–BAM!–two ALEC acolytes, a GOP state senator named Brian Birdwell and a state rep named Chris Paddie, dropped that group’s corporate-written anti-protest bomb on both houses of the Texas Lege.
Then came Greg Abbott, the notorious corporate-coddling governor, pushing the bill with a vengeance. And why not? Greg’s top donors are–surprise!–oil and gas corporations that pumped more than $10 million into his 2018 election bid. His 2019 legislative push was made in cahoots with Chevron, Exxon Mobil, Koch Industries, Shell, Valero, and other petro-powers that unleashed a lobbying barrage on legislators, successfully pressuring them (and effectively bribing many with the implied promise of future donations) to put corporate interest over the public interest.
The repressive Texas law took effect on September 1, 2019. Just 11 days later it was used to slap harsh felony charges on the Greenpeace protesters and others arrested for “interfering” with the movement of oil tankers. One politician who’s already getting grief from constituents for her despicable rush to lash the petrochemical protesters with severe felony charges is Houston district attorney, Kim Ogg. Elected in 2016 as a “bold” criminal justice reformer, she promised to reduce harsh, unfair sentencing and stop excessive bail for minor offenders.
In this case, Ogg violated both pledges. She grabbed Abbott’s brand-spanking-new “Save Big Oil” law to brand the participants as dangerous criminals. The DA is now demanding that all 31protesters be punished by lengthy state imprisonment for what clearly was a non-violent, peaceful exercise of their rights. She also asked that the court set bail for at least one of the defendants at the unconscionable level of “no lower than $100,000,” citing unsubstantiated “millions of dollars” in losses to the oil economy. Her claim of economic impact is wholly inappropriate to the bail process–intended simply to make sure defendants show up for trial. Rather, it is an outrageous attempt to impose punishment without a trial.
And here’s yet another twist: Early this year, following several oil refinery fires and spills of industry waste into the ship channel, DA Ogg was granted county funding to hire four new prosecutors and four support staffers specifically to handle crimes of environmental pollution. Now she’s prosecuting people who protest the polluters. What might be behind Ogg’s prosecutorial zealotry? Call me cynical, but I’m guessing that $70,000 in campaign cash from major oil industry donors–and her reasonable expectation of more to come for her re-election bid next year–could be persuasive motivators.
This story, however, is far bigger than one wayward DA and one bunch of right-wing state officials cracking down on public dissent. The lesson here is that repressive laws don’t just sit there on the books, they metastasize. Bad actors disseminate and use them to perpetrate enormous harm to good people and to democracy itself. This bad new law–written in the dark by self-serving, destructive corporate elites and hastily enacted by corrupt officials funded by those elites–is rapidly spreading across the country, with little public awareness. Overly ambitious and/or unscrupulous lawmakers and prosecutors everywhere are seizing it to imprison legitimate protesters and chill everyone’s willingness to assert our First Amendment rights. It is a direct assault on democracy by a voracious corporate plutocracy.
Going all in
And yet, I’m betting on democracy–because of the American people’s innate, Sam-Adams-style rebelliousness. I think of champions like Cherri Foytlin down in southwest Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Basin swamp, along the final leg of the Dakota Access Pipeline that carries oil fracked in North Dakota to a Louisiana refinery and then shipment, primarily, to China. Last year, Foytlin and others tried to stop Energy Transfer Partners–a notorious, out-of-state profiteer–from crisscrossing this beautiful and life-sustaining wetland with the polluting pipeline. She and other activists spent weeks in “sky pod” platforms they had built 35 feet in the air, tied to native cypress trees. Even though the private landowner had OKed the pods, authorities arrested the protesters in August and September for “trespassing.”
It was the first use in the nation of ALEC’s democracy-repressing ban on interfering with “critical infrastructure.” A Dine (Navajo) and Latinx who is part of the Indigenous Women’s Council of L’eau Est La Vie, Foytlin, a could face five years in prison. But don’t think that’s going to intimidate her. As she says, “They think that by upping the punishment they’re going to keep people from protesting. But what will happen is we’re going to do things that are more worth getting the felony [charge]. Because now, if we’re going to jail, then damn it, we’re going to go all in.”