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Civil rights lawyer Bill Quigley says that the legislation is driven by private oil companies who want to clamp down on environmental activists’ First Amendment rights and preserve profits derived at the expense of communities of color

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DHARNA NOOR: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Dharna Noor joining you from Baltimore. Louisiana is considering a bill that would criminalize pipeline protests. If passed, individuals could face up to 20 years in prison and be fined up to $250000. The bill would punish people for planning to trespass on infrastructure sites or disrupt pipeline operations even if they don’t actually go through with it. In supporting the measure that oil and gas industry has pointed to recent damage to equipment being used to build the Bayou Bridge pipeline in Louisiana. Last May a similar act was signed into law in Oklahoma, and legislation like this has cropped up since in Ohio, Iowa, Wyoming, and Pennsylvania, and now Minnesota.

With us to talk about this Louisiana bill, though, is Bill Quigley. Bill is a law professor at Loyola University in New Orleans, and he’s a longtime civil rights and human rights lawyer. He works with a number of environmental groups in Louisiana. Welcome, Bill.

BILL QUIGLEY: Thanks. I’m glad to be on. Thank you.

DHARNA NOOR: So start just by talking a little bit about the significance of this bill. Right now a Massachusetts judge has found 13 pipeline protesters, quote, not responsible by reason of necessity, and defended their right to protect the environment by protesting. But again, Louisiana and many other states are considering criminalizing anti-pipeline protests. Why?

BILL QUIGLEY: Well I think that the pipeline protesters in Louisiana and across the country have done a really good job of pointing out how bad for our community, bad for our country, and bad for the world this continued laying of pipeline and expansion of our ability to use fossil fuels, how bad all of that really is. And I think it’s a tribute to their success.

As as your audience knows, there are protests and civil disobedience, direct action all over the country happening all the time on these pipelines. We have the, the latest link of the Dakota Access pipeline, the Bayou Bridge pipeline, which is cutting across Louisiana as we speak. It was stopped briefly by a federal judge and then overturned by three Republican Court of Appeal judges. And I think that the pipeline companies and the oil and gas industry is really trying to fight back against the people who are dissenting. And this is part of the nationwide crackdown on dissent that we have seen.

You mentioned really the very important decision out of Massachusetts where people laid in some of these pipeline areas and explained why to the judge and to the court, and were preparing to explain why to a jury. But that scared the prosecutors so much they wouldn’t let them go to a jury and just made them misdemeanors. And the judge ultimately reduced those charges down to the extent, of like, a traffic ticket.

So this is critically important, politically important as a human rights issue, civil rights issue, it’s an environmental issue. And in Louisiana particularly it’s an environmental justice issue, which means that our communities of color, African-American communities, Vietnamese communities, low-income communities are the ones that are suffering the most from these.

DHARNA NOOR: So let’s talk a little bit about what the specifics of the legislation are. The bill, which is bill number L.A. HB 727, criminalizes, quote, offenses to critical infrastructure. What does that mean, exactly? What qualifies, first of all, as an offense, but then also what qualifies as critical infrastructure?

BILL QUIGLEY: So it’s, it’s very clear that the point of this law is to hypercriminalize protests around pipelines. Louisiana for a couple of years has had what’s called a critical infrastructure law, which saying that if people are unauthorized entry onto a chemical plant, a power plant, a power transmission thing, that sort of stuff that they, they could be challenged criminally for that, that is in it in itself a crime. This, what’s happening now as you noted is part of a nationwide trend to hypercriminalize protests around pipelines. For one thing, the new law specifically includes pipelines in the definition of critical infrastructure, which is a little bit ridiculous. I mean, this is a private company, for-profit private company. And they’re saying that we have to hypercriminalize protests at these, wherever they’re digging pipelines across the state, in order to protect the state. I think it’s, it’s an attempt to try and maximize their profits, but get the state to give them extra protection.

It’s another form of corporate welfare that we’re all used to. But in this case they’re trying to get local law, local and state law enforcement, to do their work providing security for their unreasonable and outrageous laying of pipelines across this state. And so it, we already have laws on arson. We have laws on trespass. We have laws on any damage to property, that these are already crimes in this state and every other state. But this is an attempt to try to make those laws, multiply the impact of those laws when you are protesting against a pipeline or any of those other what they call critical critical infrastructure. And clearly it is an outgrowth of Standing Rock. It’s outgrowth of what happened in Massachusetts, happening in Iowa, and other places across the country, where people are targeting and trying to actually resist in a way to stop the building of these pipelines.

DHARNA NOOR: And as you mentioned, this is a question not just of environmental protection but also of environmental justice. You know, these pipelines are often constructed in communities of color, as are other pieces of critical infrastructure. But who can we expect that this bill will target the most? I mean, for context, it was just announced that Louisiana is not charging the police officers who killed Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old black man in Baton Rouge two years ago. So can we expect that people of color and otherwise marginalized people will also be particularly affected by a bill like this?

BILL QUIGLEY: There’s no doubt about it. Whenever you’re talking about a police action, whenever you’re talking about law enforcement action, we know as a matter of fact and a matter of practice that some people have more privilege than others. And clearly race and economic, the targeting of racial and economic minorities is prevalent in every, every one of our communities.

In this, in the Bayou Bridge case for example, a lot of the work is being done in St. James Parish, where they are already just inundated with the toxic polluting chemical companies. And that, this is along the part of the Mississippi River that’s known as cancer corridor. And because of the history of racism and institutional racism in our, in our communities, people are already economically, politically, and every other way disadvantaged. And this is just trying to locate these these toxic and dangerous pipelines and others in places where there’s not as much resistance, because the people are black, the people are poor. And as we’ve seen recently, even in the sighting of a power plant in New Orleans, where it’s not just the African-American community but a Vietnamese community as well. So absolutely, the environmental damage is exacerbated and aggravated in low-income and minority communities.

DHARNA NOOR: I do certainly want to come back and ask you about that power plant specifically. But first, the language in this legislation and this bill looks kind of familiar because it’s very similar to the Critical Infrastructure Protection Act that was created by the American Legislative Exchange Council, better known as ALEC. But ALEC’s bill only criminalizes action, whereas it seems like this Louisiana bill actually criminalizes conspiracy. What’s your reaction to that? Is it worse?

BILL QUIGLEY: Yes. This is, as I said earlier, it hypercriminalizes trespass, hypercriminalizes any sort of damage that someone would do over and above if they did it, you know, a couple of blocks away at another, another place. But it also does attempt to chill the freedom of speech of people who are contemplating protests, because it says if if two or more people conspire to commit trespass or commit some sort of unauthorized entry or damage to one of these properties, then those people can be charged with felonies and imprisoned for several years with very substantial fees.

And the definition of conspiracy for this is not even set out in the bill, so it clearly can be interpreted as an effort to try to criminalize people even thinking about creative protests and the like. And that’s, I think it’s clearly the intent of the petrochemical industry, which is behind all of this, and trying to silence and just say people are not even allowed to talk about this. And I think it’s absolutely going to be unsuccessful. But it is going to create a real chill around the communities, the environmental communities, the civil rights communities and others who are fighting against the pipeline and these energy things.

And in addition, the bill also says that in addition to a felony for this, in addition to having to pay thousands and tens of thousands of dollars in fees, that the costs of investigation by law enforcement, the costs of prosecution by the district attorney, can be assessed against the people who are found guilty of these crimes, as well. So this is a they’re just inventing new crimes that are, are with a very clear intent to try to intimidate people into not even talking about this kind of protest, and at a time when protest needs to be as vigorous as possible in our communities. This criminalizing of dissent criminalizing of alternative views, again, the private for-profit oil companies are trying to force the state to use its powers to inhibit and clamp down on the First Amendment rights of people who are looking for ways to try to stop the pipelines honestly.

DHARNA NOOR: All right, Bill, thank you so much for joining us. We’re going to pick this up in part two. But for now thanks so much for being on the Real News.

BILL QUIGLEY: Thank you.

DHARNA NOOR: And thank you for watching the Real News Network.

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Bill Quigley is a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans and a longtime civil and human rights lawyer. He is working with a number of environmental groups in Louisiana.