Killing and Criminalizing Activists

Do you know about the appalling frequency of the killing of environmental protesters globally? And the accelerating trend of new laws defining fossil fuel infrastructure as “critical infrastructure” to justify charges of terrorism against even nonviolent protestors?

Monday 13 September, 2021  A report released today reveals that 227 land and environmental activists were murdered in 2020 for defending their land and the planet. That constitutes the highest number ever recorded for a second consecutive year.

Global Witness reports 227 land and environmental activists murdered in a single year, the worst figure on record

Since 2016, 13 states have quietly enacted laws that increase criminal penalties for trespassing, damage, and interference with infrastructure sites such as oil refineries and pipelines. At least five more states have already introduced similar legislation this year. These laws draw from national security legislation enacted after 9/11 to protect physical infrastructure considered so “vital” that the “incapacity or destruction of such systems and assets would have a debilitating impact on security, national economic security, national public health or safety.”

Many industry sectors are designated critical infrastructure, including food and agriculture, energy, water and wastewater, and communications, but most state critical infrastructure laws focus more narrowly on oil and gas pipelines. While protecting critical infrastructure is a legitimate government function, these laws clearly target environmental and Indigenous activists by significantly raising the penalties for participating in or even tangentially supporting pipeline trespassing and property damage, crimes that are already illegal. Many laws are modelled on draft legislation prepared by the American Legislative Exchange Council, also known as ALEC, a powerful lobbying group funded by fossil fuel companies like ExxonMobil and Shell.

Anti-Protest Laws Threaten Indigenous and Climate Movements. “Critical infrastructure” laws in over a dozen states wrongly invoke national security to justify targeting pipeline protesters by Kaylana Mueller-Hsia, Brennan Center for Justice, March 17, 2021

Following are stories about the killing of forest defender Manuel Teran “Tortuguita”. It is still not clear what led to his murder.

The snowballing militarization of police in the U.S. has coincided with a heightened criminalization of protests. Both efforts share the generous backing of corporate funders. If both phenomena continue to proceed apace, it’s easy to imagine more protesters may soon, like Terán, be hurt or killed.

Police killings of environmental defenders are much more common in other countries with major extractive industries, including Brazil, Honduras, and Nigeria; research released last year from Global Witness has found that an environmental defender was killed every 2 days over the last decade. While Terán’s shooting is the first known police killing of a forest defender in the U.S., a drumbeat of recent bills have increasingly depicted those protesting major development projects as public enemy number one. If the post-9/11 security state has a mantra, it’s that it’s easier to get away with killing someone if you can call them a terrorist. And the South Woods Forest case seems, tragically, to illustrate that principle: Seven of the forest defenders swept up in last week’s raid have now been charged with domestic terrorism, on top of the six Stop Cop City activists charged with domestic terrorism and a host of other felony and misdemeanor charges last month.

The Atlanta Police Shooting Is a Warning Sign for the Safety of Environmental Activists. Environmental defenders get killed at appalling rates in other countries. Could that trend come to the U.S.? by Kate Aronoff, The New Republic, January 24, 2023

Atlanta Police Kill Forest Defender at Protest Encampment Near Proposed “Cop City” Training Center. Democracy NOW!

Atlanta Police Kill Forest Defender at Protest Encampment Near Proposed “Cop City” Training Center

We get an update on calls for an independent investigation into the Atlanta police killing of an activist during a violent raid Wednesday on a proposed $90 million training facility in a public forest, known by opponents to the facility as “Cop City.” Law enforcement officers — including a SWAT team — were violently evicting protesters who had occupied a wooded area outside the center when they shot and killed longtime activist Manuel Teran, who went by the name “Tortuguita.” Police claim they were fired on, though protesters dispute this account. We hear a statement from an Atlanta forest defender about what happened, and speak with Kamau Franklin, an anti-“Cop City” activist and the founder of the Atlanta organization Community Movement Builders.

Manuel Esteban Paez Terán. Photograph: Gabe Eisen

Standing Rock

The police are attacking protestors again. And this past Wednesday, things went to another level. Law enforcement officers in Georgia may have just executed environmental activist Manuel Esteban Paez Terán in cold blood. Terán opposed “Cop City,” a planned $90 million police and fire department training facility being constructed in an Atlanta-area forest previously designated to be used as carbon-buffering parkland. He was killed by a raiding party consisting of dozens of officers from a host of agencies.  

This incident — the potential murder by cop of an environmental activist — would be unprecedented on U.S. soil, but it’s undeniably emblematic of the times. With great sadness, I recall the heavily militarized police force and hired private army deployed to confront us at Standing Rock during the NoDAPL movement. And I remember all too well being labeled a terrorist in response to my stand on behalf of our Grandmother Earth. But peaceful, legal dissent — whether it be on the front lines of a pipeline fight or in an Atlanta forest — must be protected! That’s the foundation of a healthy democracy, and we have to push back on this shameful activist-as-terrorist narrative at every turn. 

On that note, I want to take a moment to say thank you. You may recall that, last congressional session, Lakota Law created a blog and action alert after the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 1374. Had the bill passed the Senate and been signed off on by the White House, this hideous law would, for all intents and purposes, have given law enforcement carte blanche to kill water protestors under the guise of protecting “infrastructure” (read: pipelines). But thanks in part to more than 33,000 of you who sent messages of dissent to your senators, the law died in the Senate. 

Wopila tanka — thank you for your willingness to take a stand!

Chase Iron Eyes, Dakota Peoples Law

This video, “Love Letters to God” by Nahko and Medicine for the People, filmed at Standing Rock, vividly displays the actions of the militarized police against unarmed people peaceably assembling and praying.

Nahko and Medicine for the People. Love Letters to God.

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