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Center for Constitutional Rights

Yesterday, Anne White Hat, a Sicangu Lakota Water Protector, denounced the coordinated attack by oil and gas companies, lawmakers, and police on the Indigenous-led movement resisting fossil fuel extraction. Appearing before the House Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, Anne White Hat detailed widespread collusion that has led to industry-authored laws and violent arrests of protesters.

A leader in the fight to stop construction of the Bayou Bridge pipeline across Louisiana, White Hat was arrested in September 2018 for allegedly violating the state’s so-called critical infrastructure law, one of several enacted around the country in recent years. She referred to such laws as “lawfare,” which she defined as “the weaponizing of the legislative process to attack social movements.” Lawfare, she says, emerges from a long history of attacks on Indigenous people as they fight to protect the land from those seeking to exploit it for profit.

“Violence has been used for centuries here and around the world against people who challenge the concentration and misuse of power,” she told the committee. “This is nothing new to us, but what we experienced needs to be recognized by all as the coordinated assault on a movement.”

In leading the fight against fossil fuel extraction, Indigenous people are both fulfilling their historical role as stewards of the land and seeking to protect their own communities as they face disproportionate harm from environmental degradation. Their leadership makes them targets.

“We are living in a time where we will see immeasurable pain, death and devastation because of climate change and while fossil fuel companies are making windfall profits1. We know as Indigenous peoples violence to the land, is violence to our bodies. We have stood with our animal and plant relatives and Mother Earth because our survival depends on their survival. And instead of protecting humanity and our need for clean water and air — we have seen these bills criminalize those who are standing on the right side of history.” said Anne White Hat. “Members of our movement have been punched, kicked and tased during violent arrests by security bought and paid for by oil companies like Energy Transfer Partners, their pipeline workers have been allowed to brutally attack femmes who were protecting the right to clean water. Over a dozen of us have, for several years, had the possibility of lengthy prison sentences hanging over our heads. This is an injustice, sponsored by ALEC. “

White Hat called out the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the “front group for corporations that masquerades as a nonprofit.” American Legislative Exchange Council-affiliated lawmakers have sponsored critical infrastructure bills in 18 of the 23 state legislatures where they have been introduced.

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An American Legislative Exchange Council-affiliated lawmaker in Louisiana, Major Thibault, was lead sponsor of a 2018 amendment to an existing critical infrastructure law that ratcheted up misdemeanors to felonies. It was written by an oil and gas lobbyist in consultation with the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association.

The month after it went into effect, White Hat was arrested for “trespassing” on remote land where the pipeline company was working, even though the landowners had given her permission to protest peacefully there. In fact, a Louisiana judge has ruled that it was the pipeline company that was trespassing. White Hat is one of more than a dozen protesters arrested, often violently under Louisiana’s updated critical infrastructure law.

A group of activists and community members have filed a lawsuit, White Hat v. Landry, challenging the constitutionality of Louisiana’s critical infrastructure law. The law is so vague that people engaging in peaceful protest or merely straying too close to the state’s ubiquitous pipelines may face up to five years in prison, plaintiffs say.

They include a journalist, Karen Savage, who was arrested while documenting illegal pipeline construction and arrests of protesters. “What better way to ensure those planned arrests happened out of sight than to arrest the only reporter on site,” White Hat said. Savage was also assaulted by a pipeline worker and reported the crime to an unresponsive sheriff’s deputy who, she learned, was one of fifty-eight working privately for the pipeline company while in uniform.

“I wasn’t arrested because I was trespassing, but because of my willingness to report fairly and truthfully on a fact — pipeline construction harms the environment and exacerbates climate change — that oil companies, their trade groups, and fossil fuel–funded legislators in Louisiana, one of the most oil and gas-friendly states in the nation, don’t like,” Savage said. “When reporters are no longer allowed to report the truth, we all lose. And when reporters are no longer allowed to report the truth, we all lose.”

Yesterday’s hearing was focused on SLAPPs — strategic lawsuits against public participation — which are used to try to silence activists, journalists, and others. In connection with the hearing, U.S. Representative Jamie Raskin introduced the SLAPP Protection Act to protect free speech and other First Amendment activity.

About the Center for Constitutional Rights

The Center for Constitutional Rights works with communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications. Since 1966, the Center for Constitutional Rights has taken on oppressive systems of power, including structural racism, gender oppression, economic inequity, and governmental overreach. Learn more at ccrjustice.org. Follow the Center for Constitutional Rights on social media: Center for Constitutional Rights on Facebook, @theCCR on Twitter, and ccrjustice on Instagram.

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