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Since the 2016 protests at Standing Rock, ND, the fossil fuel industry has been pressuring state legislatures to pass laws criminalizing protests against pipeline construction

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JACQUELINE LUQMAN: This is Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News Network in Baltimore.

Since the massive protests at Standing Rock to stop the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, the fossil fuel industry has been quietly pressuring state legislatures to pass laws to stop protests against pipeline construction across the country. As of 2018, 35 states have considered 99 bills criminalizing pipeline protests. As politicians do the bidding of the powerful fossil fuel industry, what impact will these laws have on our delicate environment, our right to protest, and on native and other vulnerable and oppressed communities in particular?

Joining me to discuss these issues from Texas is Rosie Torres. Rosie is the Secretary of the Society of Native Nations, an organization of native people in Texas who are dedicated to advocating for native people and for the earth by helping to protect and preserve Native culture, spirituality, teachings, medicine, and way of life. Rosie, thank you for joining me today.

ROSIE TORRES: Thank you, Jacqueline. It is an honor to be here today with you.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So let’s talk about HB 3557. It’s under consideration in the Texas state Senate after passing the state House earlier this month, and it increases penalties for interfering in energy infrastructure construction by making protest a felony. And the sentences would range from two to ten years. This potential ten year penalty for environmental activists is the same sentence as someone convicted of murder might receive, right?


JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So what else about this legislation can you tell us?

ROSIE TORRES: Well, it’s dirty, just like the dirty politicians accepting the money from the dirty fossil fuel industry. That’s my opinion. I believe the House Bill 3557, The Critical infrastructure Protection Act, is not only criminalizing and over-criminalizing those protectors–and I would like to say protectors not protesters, protectors of water and land and air in Texas–with, like you just mentioned, a two to ten year felony– that is equivalent to a murder case–and up to a ten thousand dollar fine, as well as any organization who is affiliated with such a protector taking a stand on those critical infrastructure sites and/or constructions.

So we’re seeing, I guess, an abuse of power, an intimidation tactic to avoid stopping their pipelines from being built and constructed. It’s definitely a huge intimidation tactic to scare those that are small grassroots organizations, gathering up even small communities in rural Texas that don’t have any backings from lawyers or such, to just shut them down, quiet them down and keep business as usual moving forward. And so, it is a shame that our own government is in fact willing to use this law to quiet our voices so that we won’t protect our water, our air, our land, our quality of life for the future of our children.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So the language of this bill is particularly broad because it doesn’t just cover oil or gas pipelines or oil and gas pipelines as you mentioned, right? It’s pretty expansive in regard to what infrastructure is. What does that mean and why is that an important part of this bill?

ROSIE TORRES: So the bill itself, both Senate Bill 1993 and House Bill 3557 are titled The Critical Infrastructure Protection Act. So again, to mention, I am not a lawyer and I’m not a politician. I am a concerned citizen and dance educator. And when I looked at the definition of critical infrastructure in this particular bill, it left a huge open possibility, right? So it did mention construction sites for pipelines, but then also just left a construction site as anything related to heavy machinery or government use. And so, when I went on to do my own research and researched what the government defined as critical infrastructure, infrastructure underneath the Homeland Security, it could be schools, hospitals, nuclear plants. It could mean a lot of things.

And as we all know, like right now in San Antonio, we’re getting ready for our own city council and mayoral runoff, and everybody’s talking about infrastructure here. So they’re talking about roads and highways and bridges, and so that can mean the same thing under this particular bill. So it’s very vague. But particularly, they mean pipelines because that is what’s being constructed right now from the tip of Texas, which is Brownsville, all the way to the west end of Texas, which is the Permian Basin, all the way into Mexico. And so, it is ironic that at this time this bill is being passed, this huge debate over the Kinder Morgan pipeline coming through and getting their thumbs up is also at play. So I would say that they’ve used their words to their advantage, to where they could say critical infrastructure is vague. But at the same time, at this moment, they’re calling critical infrastructure pipelines.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And I think it is worth noting that the people behind most of this legislation, the people who actually wrote the model for much of this legislation across the country, is the American Legislative Exchange Council, ALEC, a corporate-backed group that is the most prolific organization in the country at writing model legislation. So ALEC writes the blueprints that all other legislation can be modeled off of. So excellent point that you brought up about how critical infrastructure can mean anything, even though in this particular legislation, it means pipelines.

So Rosie, this is of course a matter of money, obviously, that the fossil fuel industry doesn’t want to lose. But it’s also a matter of environmental impact. The fossil fuel industry categorizes spills of pipelines in an interesting way. They will say a spill is either minor or significant. Is there such a thing as a minor impact of a pipeline leak or an oil spill on the environment and the communities that it affects?

ROSIE TORRES: Again, I’m not an expert a scientist to give you that defined answer to that question, but I could give you my opinion as to when I spill oil in my own water. I can’t drink it. I mean, even if it’s just a little bit, I can’t drink that. So if I damage just my eight ounce bottled water with a little bit of oil, I can’t drink it. Can you imagine just any little bit minor or major spill coming into our aquifers that feeds into most of Central Texas? I mean, we won’t be able to bathe, we won’t be able to do anything because water is life. We won’t be able to live the life that we know now.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: I appreciate you saying that this is an issue where there is no minor impact because if you spill oil in water you can’t drink the water. What is the impact of the pipeline protests that have been going on in Texas had on the communities there in Texas? And what has the fight been in particular? Have there been some interesting responses from different groups of people? And then I want to ask you about the impact to native communities in particular.

ROSIE TORRES: Yes, thank you. Great question. I think the impact that this pipeline has been the fight has been going on for a while, in particular in West Texas. West Texas there is just eminent domain take over, and you’ve had a grandmother arrested in her own property for saying, “Stop the construction, stop the tearing of my own land.” And she was arrested. Had she been arrested during the time of this particular bill, she would be facing up to twenty years or ten years in prison.


ROSIE TORRES: A grandmother protecting her own land, her own property, her house, basically. And so, thankfully she didn’t have to go through this particular bill. But if this bill passes, then how many other grandmothers of Texas and how many other land owners of Texas will be going to jail? And that right there is a huge impact on how many protesters are waking up and saying, “Wow, well if this is affecting ranchers and homeowners, then it’s going to affect me as well.” Because here in Texas, land is everything. So those of us who have land–well, I don’t have land. But those who have land have gold, have everything, and when their land is being taken away by eminent domain allowed by our government to be given to these giant corporations, all for the sake of money or the prosperity of the economic development of our state, then no one is protected. No one is safe. And so, I think that really awakens a lot of us water protectors and land protectors and air protectors to be a little bit louder on what’s really happening.

Because if they’re allowing grandmothers to be jailed–because that grandmother was jailed, she was able to make bail. But if they’re arresting grandmothers then they won’t care for us, who are just regular people using our voice to stand against the destruction of our lands and our water and our air and our quality of life. So I would say the impact is that also you’ll see now across the spectrum all kinds of organizations in the state of Texas coming together in alliance and each working in their own areas to stop these pipelines. And I’m talking from again, the tip of Texas, Brownsville, the LNG pipeline, to the rural towns in West Texas, the Permian Basin, and then little spaces in between; it’s called the hill country. We have places like Blanco, Wimberley, right outside of Austin, Lytle, Buta. Those all have amazing landscapes of Texas that are about to have pipelines and more fracking wells going through them. And I would say the impact is that it’s uniting Texas in a unique way. It’s bringing people of all ages and color to come together and say, “Not in our land, not in our name.”

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: That’s an interesting result of this struggle, when you have people who are landowners, who are able to make bail if they’re jailed and have some type of resources to challenge the system, being able to find unity and coalesce with people in more vulnerable communities such as Native people and other poor people. That is a really promising outcome to this struggle. But I want to ask you this question, Rosie. When people who are pro-pipeline or pro-fossil fuel say that these pipelines bring jobs or improve the economy, and are even a benefit to some of those vulnerable populations by expanding access to energy, making energy access less expensive. What is your response to that?

ROSIE TORRES: Personally, my response is they lack creativity. I particularly come from a family and a region of Texas in South Texas where the men in our family have been in the oil fields all of my life, and I have been in existence for 43 years now. And that is what I’ve known. But at the same time, it creates this continuous loop of dependability on plastic. It goes into this endless cycle of overconsumption and it goes into this feeding the mind of those who are coming from impoverished neighborhoods or places without college degrees or the ability to go to college to get this job in this oil field and get this big paycheck, to have the–I’m going to call it the influence and/or the illusion that they’ve made it. They could have a car for each person in their house, or that they could buy things–plastic things, that is–and continue that cycle of consumption. But at the end, no one’s healthy. So those people, including some of my family members working in the oil fields and the fracking industries, are not healthy. So even though they think that they have healthcare because they work for these giant corporations, in fact, most of the men are not healthy.

And then, on top of that, they’re also creating man camps. Now, because I live close to the border, these man camps have a higher rate of just bringing women in. And there is abuse of women, there is human trafficking going through these man camps as well. So I believe the illusion that the corporations have created with jobs is just a lack of creativity. That again is my opinion. I’m sure there’s better facts out there for everyone to go into and read on how they damage small communities, rural communities into believing that their jobs are great, when in fact their jobs damage their health, create animosity against family members for those who have and those who have not, and create continuous debt because they want more and more money. And again, that’s just my opinion on that point.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Well, Rosie Torres, I thank you so much for being with me today to explain the situation in Texas with this legislation, and you have given us incredible information. We appreciate you being involved in this effort. And we will continue watching not just this legislation in Texas, but also the 35 or so other bills across the nation that seek to criminalize protesting the construction of energy infrastructure in general and criminalizing protest. Rosie Torres, thank you so much for joining me today.

ROSIE TORRES: It was an honor. Thank you so much for sharing this message out with your communities. Thank you.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And thank you for watching. I am Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News Network in Baltimore.

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Jacqueline Luqman is a host and producer for TRNN. With more than 20 years as an activist in Washington, DC, Jacqueline focuses on examining the impact of current events and politics on Black, POC, and other marginalized communities in the US and around the world, providing a specific race and class analysis at the root of these issues. She is Editor-In-Chief and a co-host of the social media program Coffee, Current Events & Politics in Luqman Nation with her husband, and is active in the faith-focused progressive/left activist community.