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Organizations say protest bills institute ‘un-American’ intimidation of citizens

Heide Brandes / Red Dirt Report
Johnson Bridgwater, executive director of the Oklahoma Sierra Club.
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OKLAHOMA CITY – On Wednesday members of the Sierra Club, the American Civil Liberties Union, Native American tribes and more gathered to express dismay and outrage at a bill that would increase penalties for protesters trespassing or damaging equipment on property with “critical infrastructures.”

Most said the bills currently moving through the Oklahoma Legislature aren’t just un-American, but a blatant intimidation and scare tactic by big corporations and legislators to squash freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.

Last week, the Oklahoma House of Representatives approved HB 1123 that would institute the most severe penalties protesters arrested for misdemeanor trespassing or vandalism, a bill that the author said would discourage “damaging” protests like the ones at Standing Rock.

Another bill, HB 2128, holds an individual arrested or convicted of trespassing liable for damages to personal or real property while trespassing. It was passed by the House on March 2.

Scott Biggs (R-Chickasha) who authored HB 1123, said during the House debate that the bill was not designed to prevent peaceful protests, but to protect infrastructure like pipelines, water treatment facilities, refineries and dams from disruptive protests.

Biggs did not return requests for interview.

HB 1123 states that any person who willfully trespasses or enters property containing a critical infrastructure facility without permission would be considered, upon conviction, guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of not less than $1,000, by imprisonment in the county jail six months or both.

If courts determine that the intent of those trespassing is to damage equipment or impede the operations of the facility, they will be punished by a fine of no less than $10,000, imprisonment at the Department of Corrections for a year or both.

The bill also calls for any person who willfully damages equipment in a critical infrastructure facility to be charged with a felony punishable by a fine of $100,000, imprisonment of not more than 10 years or both.

Oklahoma currently has laws in place making trespassing or destruction of property illegal. However, another aspect of the bill would make organizations who protest liable for up to $1 million.

If an organization is found to be a conspirator with anyone trespassing or damaging and impeding critical infrastructure, that organization would be fined 10 times the amount of the individual fines. In the case of the felony tampering charge, an organization would face a $1 million fine.

Discouraging protests

“HB1123 is a direct frontal assault on people’s rights to protest against industrial practices that create grave environmental damage or create the potential for environmental hazards. All of the conduct that 1123 criminalizes is already addressed by provisions of the Oklahoma statutes,” said attorney Doug Parr.

“The sole function of 1123 is to intimidate and punish people who engage in protest activity. It creates the most serious misdemeanor punishment for any crime on the books in Oklahoma. Simply walking on private property carries more serious penalties than negligent homicide, than assault and battery in front of children, DUI causing injury.”

What concerned Parr the most, he said, was making groups who organize protests liable.

“If someone at the demonstration, whether it’s an overzealous individual or some sort of provocateur planted by industry organization, if one of those people happens to commit one of those offenses, this group becomes liable for at least a $100,000 fine,” he said.

“There is absolutely no purpose imposing those kinds of liabilities other than to intimidate organizations from engaging in lawful First Amendment activities.” 

Johnson Bridgwater, executive director of the Oklahoma Sierra Club, said federal restrictions were already on the books to protect critical infrastructure like pipelines, dams and power plants.

“The very obvious and true purpose of these bills is a conservative reaction to the successful protest at the Dakota Access Pipeline,” he said. “Simply by being arrested, you are subject to legalities. Not proven guilty, but getting arrested. Legislative attempts to curb protests are trying to equate protest to terrorism. It’s undemocratic and un-American.”

Ashley McCray, leader of No Plains Pipeline and a member of the Absentee Shawnee Tribe, is among those planning to protest the Diamond Pipeline project in Oklahoma that traverses to Tennessee.

“Our representatives and our politicians that are creating the laws that are governing our state are more concerned about the needs of big corporations. It showed major concern that our politicians are attacking Oklahoma citizens who want to stand up for Oklahoma citizens on the basis of laws that are being fed to them by corporations that aren’t even located in our state,” McCray said.

Mekasi Horinek, a member of the Ponca Nation and director of Bold Oklahoma, said HB 1123 and HB 2128 were attacks on the indigenous people of America. Horinek, who spent several months at Standing Rock working to block the construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline, said Oklahoma started as Indian Territory.

“We cannot trespass on our own land,” he said. “We are seeing what happens when money starts running the government. We have to put the land, resources and people of Oklahoma over money. This is an attack on our freedom of speech and constitution.”

Ryan Kiesel of the Oklahoma ACLU also expressed concern about the way the bill is written, claiming that it appears to attempt to curb organized protests of pipelines and other environmental concerns.

“Protest is the most American thing any American can do. We are a nation born under protest,” he said. “[Leaders] want protest that is convenient to ignore. Corporations do not want people to feel the impact of the protest. The legislators who are offering these bills would do themselves a service if instead of chilling the voice of Oklahomans, they would actually listen to the voices of Oklahomans. Instead of running against the narrative of American history, they would open their doors and listen to the arguments.”

House Speaker Charles McCall (R-Atoka) said the bill wasn’t aimed to stifle free speech.

“We are not trying to shut down anybody’s right of free speech, but it is very much about personal property and damage to personal property,” he said.

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Heide Brandes

Heide Brandes is an award-winning journalist and editor with more than 18 years of experience....

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