Many of us in the environmental and climate justice movements are hard-wired for protest. We know the value of civil disobedience in furthering the movement. From the origins of Earth Day, which saw nearly 20 million Americans take to the streets to demand clean air and clean water regulations, to the current tree-sits at Strawberry Rock, mass demonstrations and actions have always been a part of the environmental movement. Though the current situation has temporarily put a stop to most activities that bring us in close contact with each other, the Civil Liberties Defense Center (CLDC) wants us to take this opportunity to educate ourselves about our rights as climate activists and be prepared for future climate-defense work that we may be called to do.
Formed in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, the CLDC was a reaction to the Patriot Act, which was seen by most activists as an attack on civil liberties. The Center’s mission is to “support movements that seek to dismantle the political and economic structures at the root of social inequality and environmental destruction” and provide education, litigation, legal and strategic resources for those movements. It is currently offering a 3-part “Know Your Rights” training webinar for climate activists at cldc.org.
Many states have recently passed laws targeting dissent, and although state repression isn’t applied to all of us equally (just ask any person of color), the purpose of the trainings, says CLDC Executive Director, Lauren Regan, is to teach activists where the line is between legal and illegal, so they can act in full knowledge of what they are doing.
After the protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock, North Dakota, many of the fossil-fuel producing states in the middle of the country, which also have large indigenous populations, passed strict anti-riot and felony trespass laws. South Dakota passed a law criminalizing “Riot Boosting” which is when a person or organization doesn’t actually participate in a so-called “riot” but “directs, advises, solicits or encourages” participation in an action. This can be used to prosecute any group that supports or endorses an action, even if they don’t participate in it. West Virginia, which has extensive coal mining operations, passed legislation eliminating police liability for deaths caused by police activity in riots. No activists have been killed by West Virginia police in the course of protesting, but most of these laws are designed as deterrents and ways to scare activists away from asserting their constitutional rights to gather and dissent. Some hold “conspiring organizations” liable in cases of trespassing or destruction of “critical energy infrastructure”. State by state anti-protest legislation can be found at icnl.org/usprotestlawtracker/.
But there is some good news. CLDC, which provides legal representation to climate activists arrested in action, has recently won court cases in Oregon using the Necessity Defense. This defense argues that a defendant’s conduct, whether that be blocking a coal train or turning off a pipeline, was necessary as an emergency measure to avoid imminent injury. In the case of defendants charged with shutting off a pipeline pumping tar-sands oil, the CLDC argued that they had exhausted all other legal avenues to address the imminent threat that burning fossil fuels presented and that turning off the pipeline was the only option they had left to avoid harm. The willingness of the jury to accept that defense shows that the tide of public opinion is turning and average citizens are realizing that drastic action must be taken to minimize the threat to our existence.