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Congress Wants to Stop Pipeline Protests by Prosecuting Activists as Terrorists

Auditi Guha

“There is a national effort to stop protests like Standing Rock."

In case a military-style takeover wasn’t enough to deter pipeline protesters at Standing Rock, some congressional lawmakers are pushing to treat environmental activists like terrorists.

A group of 80 congressional Republicans and four Texas Democrats in October submitted a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions asking him to look into the possibility of prosecuting pipeline protesters under the domestic terrorism statute.

They cited attempts to shut off valves and damage pipelines but seem to include the larger nonviolent resistance in their push to use the terrorism statute against activists. The bipartisan group claims that “maintaining safe and reliable energy infrastructure is a matter of national security.”

“These attacks on our fundamental constitutional rights, spearheaded by Donald Trump and parroted by congressional shills of Big Oil, should deeply concern all citizens who value our right to speak freely and demonstrate,” said Standing Rock Sioux member and attorney-activist Chase Iron Eyes in a press release.

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A prominent activist and lawyer with the Lakota People’s Law Project, Iron Eyes is the only one of the 843 Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) protesters arrested who faces the serious charge of inciting a riot, along with criminal trespass. Others have been charged with participating in a riot, Sinkin said.

More than 400 cases were dismissed or some plead out. Nearly 400 are awaiting trial in their state cases. Of these, more than 100 are still waiting for representation, said Jesse Phelps, press director at the Lakota People’s Law Project.

The first two water protectors to be convicted on misdemeanor charges stemming from an October 2016 DAPL protest at Standing Rock recently served jail time, according to the Water Protector Legal Collective.

A 27-year-old teacher living in New Mexico, Alexander Simon, served 12 days in jail for obstruction of a government function, and 64-year-old Mary Redway, a retired environmental planner from Rhode Island, served four days in jail for disorderly conduct.

“It seems that Judge Thomas A. Merrick wanted to make an example of me, berating me because, in his opinion, I didn’t ‘have a dog in the fight,'” Simon said in a statement. “He is mistaken and I am proud to help shoulder the burden in the fight for Indigenous Rights. If this is the price I must pay for Indigenous Peoples to pursue a path towards sovereignty, I am honored to do it.”

Native activists are not the only ones facing police and legal backlash in a year that has seen a record number of protests. From the Women’s March to Charlottesville, resistance is increasing and state legislators are responding in chilling ways.

The American Civil Liberties Union Foundation (ACLU) counted more than 30 bills introduced in 19 states aiming to criminalize peaceful protest. Measures introduced range from increased penalties for protesters who block roadways to decreased liability for motorists who hit a protester.

SB 540 in Oregon seeks to expel any public college student convicted for rioting; SB 176, passed by Republicans in South Dakota, limits the number of protesters in established “public safety zones” on highways with violators to face jail time; HB 1123 in Oklahoma specifies penalties of up to $100,000 in fines and ten years in prison for people harming “critical infrastructure.”

Iron Eyes said in a new video that he believes he was targeted because of his prolific feeds on social media inviting activists and media to be witness to the police brutality Native protesters faced in North Dakota.

“We have incited nothing but peace, and prayer, and dignity,” he said. “It was very clear from the moment that I walked up to that police line, one of the officers asks for me by name. And he said, ‘If you don’t call those people off that hill, we are going to hold you personally responsible for anything that happens.’”

This latest move by congressional leaders is nothing short of a chilling effect on protest, Lanny Sinkin, Lakota People’s Law Project attorney, told Rewire.

“There is a national effort to stop protests like Standing Rock. The members of Congress who asked Attorney General Sessions to broaden the meaning of ‘terrorist’ to reach people interrupting the flow of oil is one piece of that puzzle,” he said.

“The numerous dismissals is evidence of people being charged with criminal activity as a means of scaring others into not protesting,” Sinkin said.

Lakota People’s Law Project is defending protesters HolyElk Lafferty and Iron Eyes over charges related to DAPL, and is in the process of gathering evidence to show how peaceful demonstrators were “unfairly, unjustly and illegally targeted while doing their best to protect their water and this planet for future generations.”

Since his February 1 arrest on unceded 1851 Treaty Land near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, Iron Eyes has stood by his conviction that he was was within his rights to protest.

“Given the Dakota Access pipeline’s imminent threat to my tribe’s and my family’s only water supply, I ultimately had no choice but to resist on the front lines,” Iron Eyes said in a Lakota Law release. “Pipelines spill all too often, and our efforts to stop DAPL’s construction were thwarted by President Trump’s illegal intervention to cancel the Environmental Impact Statement that the Army Corps of Engineers had decided to prepare.”

The defense hopes to argue that he had no other choice but civil disobedience to protest the violation on his ancestral property.

As Iron Eyes gears up to fight his state charges, there are seven people facing serious federal felony charges. Of them, Red Fawn’s motions to suppress will be heard in federal court in Bismarck on December 8, Sarah Hogarth from the Water Protector Legal Collective told Rewire. The number of pending state criminal cases stands at around 400, she said.

While unsuccessful in stopping the pipeline, Standing Rock captured headlines and has empowered many other Native communities to fight for their rights. As Dr. Elizabeth Ellis pointed out in a recent Rewire piecethe DAPL fight is the latest in a long line of U.S. state-sanctioned violence against Native Americans.

As protests increase nationwide, so does the crackdown on First Amendment rights, often in the guise of protecting infrastructure or public safety.

Under Trump’s rule, Republican leaders have also supported a wave of legislation to attack rather than protect the communities police serve with Blue Lives Matter laws called dangerous by racial justice advocates.

At least 37 states have introduced legislation this year to increase penalties for offenses against law enforcement. Legislators in 22 states have pushed to designate certain offenses against law enforcement officers as hate crimes, according to Rewire tally.

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