New laws to jail environmentalists and rhetoric to smear them, too

Tougher penalties for protesters and labeling them as terrorists

Groups protest anti-protest law in Britain

Britain’s Parliament is considering the Police Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill, a law that would, among other things, give police a great deal of power to limit British residents’ ability to protest. Police could limit or end a protest if they deemed it too noisy or if they thought it was a nuisance—subjective parameters that would give the police great license to interfere with free speech rights. Those running afoul of the law could face fines and time in jail.

The Labour Party and Liberal Democratic Party opposed the legislation, but it nonetheless passed in the House of Commons. It next goes to the House of Lords, then returns to the House of Commons for possible passage into law.

Extinction Rebellion, which uses peaceful protests as a means of achieving ecological and environmental goals, believes that they, as well as Black Lives Matter, are the targets of the law. Indeed, Priti Patel, Britain’s Home Secretary penned the legislation in the wake of last year’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations and the protests of Extinction Rebellion. She called Extinction Rebellion “so-called eco-crusaders turned criminals” after individuals associated with the global environmental movement glued themselves to public transportation facilities and entrances to Parliament. She has also characterized BLM protesters as “hooligans and thugs.”

To raise support for the legislation, Patel emphasizes additional provisions of the proposed law that deal with sentencing and incarceration of those convicted of sexual offenses, saying that it will “end the half-way release” of these individuals. I’m not sure if Patel can appreciate the irony, but her legislation has inspired more protests.

Similar laws in the U.S.

The proposed law in Britain mirrors laws that have passed or been proposed in state houses across the U.S in the last five years. In at least a dozen states, laws are being passed that target environmental protesters. The Louisiana legislature overwhelmingly passed a bill that increases the penalties—setting a mandatory minimum of three years at hard labor—for trespass on fossil fuel and other infrastructure sites during a state of emergency, such as the one declared during the COVID-19 pandemic. Until now, trespass has typically been treated as a misdemeanor.

Kentucky, South Dakota, and West Virginia have passed similar fossil fuel trespass legislation. Most of the new laws are almost exactly the same, as they were all written by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Noted for drafting and supporting the passage of hot-button, conservative legislation, such as “Stand Your Ground” and mandatory minimum laws, ALEC has also been a big force in defeating or watering down greenhouse gas emissions regulations and other environmental rules.

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Rhetoric

There is a lot of money backing the push for these laws. Oil companies, polluters, and others are also trying to shape the way you think about the people who protest pipelines and raise a ruckus over climate change.

Almost dropped from our lexicon in the last ten years or so, the dubious terms eco-terrorism and eco-terrorist have made it back into the news. GOP politicians and news outlets have resurrected the terms to describe Tracy Stone-Manning, President Biden’s nominee to head the Bureau of Land Management.

In 1989, Stone-Manning typed a letter and sent it anonymously to the U.S. Forest Service to warn the agency that trees scheduled for logging had been spiked. Tree spiking is the practice of inserting a metal rod or other material into the trunk of a tree. A blade, either in the tree’s felling or later at a sawmill, coming in contact with the rod would be ruined. Folks have spiked trees to save them from logging and clear-cutting. Stone-Manning later testified against two of her colleagues who had done the spiking. The two later served time in prison for the act.

Would you call that terrorism? Besides what we may think of Stone-Manning’s actions of 32 years ago, are they the equivalent of exploding a car bomb in a crowded market?

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Some folks want you to think that Extinction Rebellion poses as great a threat as people with pipe bombs and suicide vests. Twenty years ago the FBI helped muddy the terminology used to smear environmental activists. Overseas, the FBI classifies an act as terrorism if it is dangerous to human life. In the U.S., the FBI classifies an act as domestic eco-terrorism even if it is only committed against property.

A dire threat to human life, a car bombing, or an airplane deliberately flown into a building, is not needed for the FBI to call you or anybody else an eco-terrorist. Some of the acts of the Earth Liberation Front of 20 to 30 years ago, such as burning down a ski resort in Colorado, caused millions of dollars in damages. But lives were not threatened. And far lesser crimes are labeled as eco-terrorism. Vandals destroying genetically modified crops have been called eco-terrorists. Spray-painting graffiti on a car has been called eco-terrorism. I’m not defending what these people did, but they should not be linguistically equated with Osama bin Laden.

The right-wing press has been eager to slather the fraudulent label on Stone-Manning and just about anything that goes green. Fox News uses the term to disparage Stone-Manning. In one paragraph the National Review manages to label Stone-Manning as an eco-terrorist, smear vandals as eco-terrorists, label China’s former one-child policy as eco-terrorism, and somehow conflate it all together.

What do you think? Is a rowdy Extinction Rebellion protest an act of terrorism? Should police have more power to quell demonstrations? Is the FBI aiding business interests and hindering progress on the environment by the way it defines terrorism? Please leave a comment.

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