Criminalizing Protest

by Phil Anderson

Republicans in Wisconsin have introduced fascist legislation to increase penalties for protesting. These bills would impose excessively harsh criminal penalties for trespassing and damage to property when protesting “energy providers” and “critical infrastructure.” This is bad legislation and a threat to our civil liberties. When did we become Russia? Or, more accurately, a corporate dictatorship?  

Assemble Bill 426 and Senate Bill 386 would expand a 2015 law which makes it a felony to trespass on, or damage, property owned, operated, or leased by an electrical or gas company. The new proposals expand coverage to oil, water, electricity, and renewable fuel companies.  

Rather than protecting “critical infrastructure,” the real purpose of these laws is to have a chilling effect on protesters and to discourage citizens concerned about the environment from exercising their right to protest. It is to scare peaceful protesters with excessive penalties and to connect peaceful protesting with acts of vandalism and “economic terrorism.” As Mike German, a former FBI agent and fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice, says  

“It’s an effective way of suppressing protest activity and creating an enormous burden for people who want to go out and express their concerns.”  

Vera Eidelman, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, adds,   “Even if folks haven’t been charged, the fact that these laws are on the books can seriously chill people and make them fearful of getting their voices out.” (Both quotes from Guardian articles sited below).  

The real purpose of these proposed laws becomes obvious when one considers the bigger picture. Similar legislation is being pushed all over the country by conservative, industry sponsored groups and politicians. The push for these laws did not come from any citizen concerns or actual problems resulting from protest abuses. Mostly the laws are a reaction to the Native American activism surrounding the Keystone XL pipeline protests. These laws increase penalties for trespass and vandalism, normally misdemeanors, to felonies. This is a gross miscarriage of justice as the penalties do not match the “crime.” These kind of bills are clearly an attempt on the part of right wing groups to hamper and hassle protesters.  

In Wisconsin, AB 426 and SB 389 increase penalties to class H and I felonies punishable by fines of up to $10,000 and prison terms of from three to six years. Misdemeanors in Wisconsin are punishable by sentences of less than one year and fines ranging from $500 to $10,000. Trespass, disturbing the peace, and civil disobedience should be, at worst, a Class C misdemeanor punishable with up to 30 days or $500.  

Another problem with these laws is the special “protection” to specific, powerful, politically connected industries. These industries are not endangered by protesters and have the resources to protect themselves. Nor are important, necessary public services endangered by a few protesters. So why are these new laws being pushed? Obviously it is to punish and discourage peaceful protesters who hurt the PR image of big companies.  

These laws are not necessary. Trespass, destruction of property, and vandalism are already covered by existing laws. Pipeline and mining companies have adequate, existing remedies to deal with the tiny minority of protesters that are more militant. Protests rarely result in any damage to property. In Superior the Douglas County Sheriff incident reports show the actual examples of protester related vandalism are minor. In one case the pipeline company even chose not to file a complaint. It is ridiculous to consider special legislation to deal with these non-problems.  

These laws are all part of a pattern including “freedom to farm” legislation to protect large factory farms, protecting chemical plants from citizen scientists taking water and air samples, opposition to freedom of information laws, product labeling, and bans on citizens taking photos. Police power has always been used to protect corporate interests from citizen efforts to make companies more accountable.  

Unfortunately these bad laws are being supported by some Democrats including state Senator Janet Bewley from northwestern Wisconsin. She has apparently bowed to pressure from companies and some construction unions. I am a supporter of strong unions, but one of their blind spots is environmental issues. We can have both jobs and protect the environment. Unions should realize that a company which will cut corners on environmental protection will do the same for worker safety and other workplace issues. They should understand that an injury to one is an injury to all – including for Mother Nature. But too often unions have not seen this reality and have supported their narrow, short term interests over the environment. Senator Bewley should know better and be able to see the greater public good.  

Ironically the unions claim this legislation is needed to protect worker safety when protests occur. But it is ludicrous to think the safety of pipeline or power plant construction workers are threatened by a few grandmas, students, and environmental activists waving signs.  

Conservative, anti-worker, anti-union, anti-environmental business groups are the people pushing these laws. They have a long history of opposing efforts to improve worker safety, public health, or the general public good. It should be obvious that worker safety is not their goal or the object of these laws. The Wisconsin bills include language exempting union picketing activities to gain union support. Apparently some unions have swallowed the bait.  

Senator Bewley's office claims the bills do not target peaceful protest. The bills do exempt anyone engaged in the “otherwise lawful exercise of free speech rights.” But this is one vague sentence. We have our long history of free speech and assembly rights being restricted, narrowly defined, or simply ignored by the courts and police. This leaf of protection is cold comfort for protesters.   We need stronger laws for corporate lawlessness, not restricting citizens free speech rights. If you live in Wisconsin and find these laws chilling, contact Senator Bewley and tell her how you feel. To learn more Google:  

Truth Out, “Wisconsin Lawmakers Seek to Criminalize Environmental Protests”   Protesters as terrorists: growing number of states turn anti-pipeline activism into a crime, The Guardian, July 8, 2019,  

Treating protest as terrorism: US plans crackdown on Keystone XL activists, The Guardian, September 20, 2018 ACLU, Know Your Rights Protesters Rights