Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers, a Democrat who took office earlier this year, has signed into law a bill designed to criminalize and chill environmental protests, despite widespread opposition from local and national environmental and social justice groups, as well as some of Wisconsin’s federally recognized tribes.
In a press release, the governor echoed oil and gas industry talking points, which the nonprofit Center for Media and Democracy revealed earlier, saying, “Today, I signed Assembly Bill 426, which aims to ensure each energy provider is treated the same under the law while still protecting the right to exercise free speech and the right to assembly.”
The law, now 2019 Wisconsin Act 33, echoes similar “critical infrastructure protection” model bills pushed out by the American Legislative Exchange Council, known as ALEC, and the Council of State Governments over the last two years to prevent future protests like the one against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Wisconsin is the tenth state to pass such a bill.
Under the new law, peaceful protestors can be charged with a felony punishable by up to six years in prison and a $10,000 fine if they trespass on property owned, leased, or operated by companies engaged in the distribution of oil or petroleum.
The growing use of these bills to stifle protest again the fossil fuel infrastructure is the subject of a cover story in the most recent issue of The Progressive. The article by Chicago journalist
Elizabeth King, titled “The New Green Scare,” quoted Michael Loadenthal, visiting assistant professor of sociology and social justice at Miami University in Ohio and an expert on the repression of social movements, as sounding an alarm about the rush to selectively criminalize protests.
“I do believe we are re-entering a phase when there is greater and more obvious cooperation between corporate interests, especially energy and extractive industries, and the state,” Loadenthal said. The article went on to note that this crackdown “comes amid urgent warnings from climate scientists about the dangerous impacts of climate change.”
Evers, in apparent recognition of opposition to the bill from various tribal nations, including the Ho-Chunk, Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewas, and Menikanaehkem, an organization on the Menominee Indian Reservation, said he hoped that members of the state’s GOP-controlled legislature “will engage in meaningful dialogue and consultation with Wisconsin’s Tribal Nations before developing and advancing policies that directly or indirectly affect our Tribal Nations and indigenous persons in Wisconsin.”
But few lawmakers addressed concerns of the tribes during public hearings and a floor amendment to narrow the conditions under which protestors could be charged with a felony failed. “Neither the energy industry nor the state of Wisconsin has consulted any tribal government about how this legislation would infringe on the sovereignty of Wisconsin’s twelve Indian Nations,” said Maria Haskins of Menikanaehkem.
Prior to signing the bill, Evers heard from a broad range of groups urging him to veto it.
In late October, he received a letter from thirty-six state groups, including the ACLU, the Sierra Club, the landowner group 80 Feet is Enough!, Menikanaehkem, and others. They pointed to a number of concerns, including that the bill violates constitutional rights, and will result in more people of color imprisoned and a loss of landowner rights.
And on November 19, the day before the bill was signed, Evers received a second letter from fourteen national groups including Defending Rights & Dissent, Greenpeace, the National Lawyers Guild, PEN America, and others. It stated that “Special protections designed to protect the energy industry from protests, including nonviolent civil disobedience, do nothing to protect the public or worker safety. They do threaten our democracy by chilling dissent.”
Elizabeth Ward of Sierra Club-Wisconsin elaborated on this concern.
“Governor Evers had the opportunity to demonstrate leadership on climate change, and he opted not to,” Ward noted. “The need to stand up for water protectors, tribal members, and landowners with oil pipelines running through their property has been crystal clear with the recent pipeline fights in Wisconsin and around the country. It’s disappointing that the governor was unwilling to do so and instead supported this bill that helps the fossil fuel industry continue to lock us into a climate catastrophe.”
Chris Ott, executive director of the ACLU of Wisconsin, promised that his group will “closely monitor the enforcement of this law and oppose any attempts to infringe on the freedom of speech or criminalize people for making their voices heard.”