On Jan. 24, President Donald Trump signed of an executive order intended to jumpstart progress on the Dakota Access Pipeline, as well as streamline the creation of further and additional pipelines, serving as the latest blow in an engagement between protesters and corporate interests across America. Legislation is being introduced in many states to further curtail the efforts of those seeking to use peaceful public assembly to assert their views by use of legal penalties and fines.
North Dakota, the site of many of the major protests, made of a mixture of environmental activists, locals from the Standing Rock Reservation and veteran groups, recently introduced a bill to the legislature, penned by Republican Rep. Keith Kempenich, that would remove legal penalties for drivers who ran over protesters on the road, so long as it was accidental.
Kempenich defended the bill, stating, “They’re intentionally putting themselves in danger.”
Indiana passed similar legislation that mandated officials to dispatch police to the location of protests of ten or more people obstructing vehicle traffic within fifteen minutes of learning of the event, and authorizing the officers to use any means necessary to disperse the protest.
Minnesota, Washington, and Michigan Republican Congressmen are also attempting to pass legislation to increase legal penalties for protests, with Washington lawmakers going so far as to pen a bill that would label such protests ‘economic terrorism’ and a felony level crime.
Similarly, Nick Zerwas (R-MN), who introduced his state’s anti-protest bill, is in full support of its intended purpose in allowing protesters convicted of unlawful assembly, trespassing, or similar actions to be sued by citizens affected by their crimes.
“If you try to shut down the Mall of America,” Zerwas said, “a taxpayer from Bloomington shouldn’t have to pay because you want to break the law.”
The Minnesota bill also includes language that allow protesters to be sued for the cost of policing their events.
Some have stepped up to defend the bills, arguing that protestors are disrupting not just construction, but the lives of thousands and commerce in the millions with road blockages and similar actions. Further, the protests have begun to pose safety hazards as they move onto active highways, instead of just side roads.
“When people are having their lives disrupted, you’re going to see things move up here,” Armstrong Corporation and North Dakota Vice President Kelly Armstrong said. “It’s very difficult to write protest laws.We need to make sure there is reasonable application of the law in all circumstances, whether protest-related or not.”
Others, such as Marvin Nelson, North Dakota Representative, are more leery of the proposed legislation, stating, “Knee-jerk legislation often is poor legislation.”
Tara Houska, director of national campaigns for the non-profit group Honor the Earth, stated more directly of the North Dakota bill, “It’s shocking to see legislation that allows for people to literally be killed for exercising their right to protest in a public space.”
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe – whose reservation borders the planned pipeline and whose water supply’s purity would be threatened by pollution from both the construction and operation of the oil pipeline – has formed the core of the protests, joined by hundreds of others from around the nation.
Though active construction has still been delayed due to denial of needed permits by the US Army Corp of Engineers in December 2016, many worry that the new permit applications would be approved, though the wording of the executive order signed by President Trump would only ensure the review process of the permit would be given extra attention and care in a timely fashion, with the end result still in doubt.
The anti-protest bills have also caused worry, given their potential impact on locals associated with the protest and lack of communication between the federal government and tribal representatives, with the Standing Rock Tribe’s chairman, Dave Archambault II stating, “The state claims they want to work closely with the tribe on repairing our relationship with them. Clearly that is not happening when legislation that impacts us is being drafted without consultation, consent or even basic communications.”
With the debate still ongoing for most of the bills, outside of the already passed Indiana legislation, some protesters have decided to leave, while others remain resolved to stay to the finish.
Helen Red Feather was of the latter group, having protested the pipeline dubbed ‘the black snake’ since its inception.
“I came here to kill the snake,” Red Feather said. “And I’m staying here to kill the snake.”