Four years ago, I was arrested in an act of civil disobedience. Along with two of my friends, I was blocking the entrance to a fracking site in Denton. That site should not have been active, because a few months prior to our protest the residents of Denton voted to ban fracking within our city limits. It was our community’s decision to protect our air, water, and neighborhoods. Yet the Texas Legislature overturned our democratically-enacted ban. So, when the trucks and drilling rigs came rolling back into town, my friends and I tried to stop them.
We knew what we were doing was illegal according to the new state law. But that law is unjust – it deprives communities of their ability to protect residents from a uniquely invasive industry. We were handcuffed after about an hour of protesting. We were then sent to jail on misdemeanor charges of trespassing.
The Texas Legislature is now considering a pair of bills (HB 3557 and SB 1993) known as the “Critical Infrastructure Protection Act.” They would reclassify our protest as a second degree felony – the same level of offense as attempted murder or indecency with a child. The penalty would be 2 to 20 years in prison with a $10,000 fine. You may not like protestors, but are you prepared to live under a regime that is this hostile to free speech and assembly?
Justice is often represented by scales for a reason – it is a matter of striking the right balance. Those who conduct civil disobedience understand they are weighing their freedom in the balance. But a democratic society needs to also weigh things carefully. The difference between a democracy and a tyranny is not just what is considered criminal but to what extent it is criminalized. These bills cross a dangerous line.
They are not native to Texas. Rather, the proposed bills are the spawn of the American Legislative Exchange Council. In this case, ALEC has been getting state governments to pass “critical infrastructure” bills. Their stated intent is to prevent damage to “critical infrastructure facilities,” which include oil and gas sites, chemical plants, confined animal feeding operations, and more.
Yet we already have laws against damaging these facilities. Indeed, we have laws against damaging any kind of private or public property. Why this special list of ‘critical’ facilities, and why doesn’t it include, say, schools or hospitals? In a word: money. In three words: money and power. The bills list nineteen “critical infrastructure facilities,” and half of them are oil and gas related. In short, these are the facilities run by the big corporations that fund the campaigns that get state representatives elected.
And those guys are afraid. Critical infrastructure bills were created in a panic in the wake of several high-profile protests against oil and gas pipelines and other infrastructure. The bills are designed to send a chilling message and to squelch fundamental expressions of democratic citizenship. In one version, the bills define ‘interference’ with critical infrastructure facilities so broadly as to criminalize even off-site activities. Advocating for pollution control devices, for example, could become a felony. So could attempts to block a pipeline cutting through your own land. We are talking about the right to petition our government and the right to defend our property. The slope is slippery and the stakes are high.
Prior to our protest, my friends and I received training from several individuals and organizations. Responsible and non-violent protests require a great deal of thought and planning. The people who help with this are often working at non-profit organizations that barely scrape by. They are some of the unsung heroes of democratic polities – they channel righteous anger into social justice movements. If these bills become law, then they become criminals. They will be fined $1 million. This would kill the organizations that help people and communities defend themselves when besieged by “critical infrastructure.”
We need to keep in mind a broader set of critical infrastructures, including our democratic rights and norms. Let’s also remember the critical infrastructure provided by healthy ecosystems and a livable climate. Please urge your representatives to oppose HB 3557 and SB 1993.
*Here is the latest information I have on how to oppose these bills*
HB 3557 was passed by the House Judiciary & Civil Jurisprudence and now goes to the Calendars Committee, which does not hold hearings on bill. The Calendars Committee members who will next be voting on this HB 3557 are:
|Rep.||Oscar||Longoria||35||D||Calendars||Rio Grande Valley (Mission)||512-463-0645|
SB 1993 was heard in the Senate Natural Resources and Economic Development (SNRED) Committee on Wednesday March 27 and could be voted on at any time. The committee members that will be voting on SB 1993 are:
|Sen.||Brian||Birdwell||22||R||SNRED||Granbury to Waco||512-463-0122|
|Sen.||Pat||Fallon||30||R||SNRED||Collin, Denton north to OK border, west to Wichita Falls & Palo Pinto||512-463-0130|
|Sen.||Peter||Flores||19||R||SNRED||S. Bexar to Brewster||512-463-0119|
|Sen.||Kelly||Hancock||9||R||SNRED||Northern Tarrant & W. Dallas Co.||512-463-0109|
|Sen.||Juan “Chuy”||Hinojosa||20||D||SNRED||Nueces to Hidalgo Co.||512-463-0120|
|Sen.||Bryan||Hughes||1||R||SNRED||NE Texas – Panola to Lamar||512-463-0101|
|Sen.||Borris||Miles||13||D||SNRED||Ft. Bend & SW Harris Co.||512-463-0113|
|Sen.||Angela||Paxton||8||R||SNRED||SW Collin Co||512-463-0108|
|Sen.||Beverly||Powell||10||S||SNRED||Southern Tarrant Co.||512-463-0110|
|Sen.||José||Rodríguez||29||D||SNRED||El Paso & Far West TX||512-463-0129|
|Sen.||Judith||Zaffirini||21||D||SNRED||Laredo to SE Travis Co.||512-463-0121|
1. Don’t over-criminalize the actions of people who are exercising their rights in order to protect their family, property and community.
2. There are already laws on the books to address criminal actions. These bills go too far and could have grave consequences and terrible unintended consequences.