Quantcast

Why Greenpeace Activists Dangled From a Bridge in Texas — and Face 2 Years in Prison

Climate

By Naveena Sadasivam

It was early in the morning last Thursday, and Jonathan Butler was standing on the Fred Hartman Bridge, helping 11 fellow Greenpeace activists rappel down and suspend themselves over the Houston Ship Channel. The protesters dangled in the air most of the day, shutting down a part of one of the country's largest ports for oil.


More than 700,000 barrels of oil passed through the Houston Ship Channel last year, accounting for a third of U.S. crude oil exports. From the bridge, Butler could see the labyrinth of refineries on both sides of the channel — the type of facilities which Texas had recently passed a law to protect. The law was one of a wave of so-called critical infrastructure bills that state lawmakers have enacted across the country to punish protesters who interfere with oil and gas operations.

Butler and roughly two dozen other activists planned to end their protest 24 hours after it started. But before they could, the Harris County Sheriff's Office arrested the Greenpeace activists and charged them with a felony — obstructing critical infrastructure — making them the first people to be charged under the new law. It makes knowingly damaging so-called critical infrastructure a third-degree felony, on par with indecent exposure to a child. If convicted, they could spend two years in prison.

Nicole Debord, a Greenpeace attorney, called the charges "an unusual test case" and said she looks forward to challenging the law. "This arrest didn't have to happen," she said. "The protest was scheduled to end at a certain time, and if law enforcement had just let the protesters be, they would have ultimately just ended the protest and everyone would have walked away."

The Harris County District Attorney's office also charged the protesters with obstructing a highway and trespassing, a misdemeanor that carries up to 180 days in prison and a $2,000 fine. Of the 26 protesters, 22 have been charged with a federal misdemeanor for obstructing navigable waters, which could mean as much as one year in prison and a $2,500 fine. They were all released over the weekend after spending two nights in custody.

In the years after protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline captured national attention, states have rushed to pass laws that levy hefty jail terms and fines for protesting near pipelines, compressor stations, refineries and other infrastructure deemed "critical." So far Texas and seven other states across the Midwest and South have put these laws on the books. Similar legislation has been introduced in at least a dozen others, according to the International Center for Not for-Profit Law, a group that has been tracking legislation criminalizing protest around the country.

Proponents of such laws — many with ties to the fossil fuel industry — have argued that they're necessary to deter rogue activists who might damage oil and gas facilities and put lives at risk. Their opponents point out that laws already exist to punish such activities and that the new wave of laws criminalizes free speech.

The laws are modeled after legislation circulated by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative nonprofit backed by the Koch brothers. The group has been pushing such laws in state legislatures, touting its successes in newsletters. The Texas lawmakers behind the state's critical infrastructure bill attended ALEC conferences in the last few years.

After Louisiana passed one such measure last year, at least 16 protesters have been arrested and charged under the state's "critical infrastructure" law. Three of them, who were trying to block construction of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline, are now fighting the charges and challenging the law in a U.S. district court, claiming it violates their free speech rights.

Brianna Gibson, a Greenpeace activist arrested and charged last week alongside Butler, said the group had picked the Fred Hartman Bridge in part to highlight the disproportionate burden the fossil fuel industry places on black and brown communities in East Houston. Residents in those neighborhoods deal with poorer air quality and a higher risk of cancer than on average in the city.

Gibson, who lives in Chicago and was one of the 11 who rappelled down the side of the bridge, said she felt a responsibility to act because "my family, my community, and the people I love are deeply impacted by issues like environmental racism."

Dane Schiller, a spokesperson for the Harris County district attorney's office, said that the case will be presented to a grand jury, which will decide whether there's sufficient evidence for a felony indictment. "Prosecutors could be personally sympathetic to their message and their cause, but these individuals knowingly and deliberately broke the law," he said.

Although parts of the Houston Ship Channel were shut down for 22 hours, the economic impact appears minimal. Petty Officer Kelly Parker, a spokesperson for the U.S. Coast Guard, told Grist that sections of the ship channel are routinely shut down when fog makes it hard to see. As a result, long lines to pass under the bridge are common, and most operators factor in delays.

Parker estimated that about 300 vessels pass under the Fred Hartman Bridge every day, the vast majority of which are smaller towing and pilot vessels. "Obviously we don't want to shut down any part of the ship channel, but it does happen fairly frequently due to weather," he said.

Both Gibson and Butler worry about what happens if they get a felony conviction. Gibson, a first generation college graduate, is helping support her mother and brother's children. Butler said that life was "difficult enough" as a black and queer person and a conviction would make life "a lot more difficult."

Still, Butler believes the protest was worth it. "The impact of climate change is happening now, and it's going to continue to happen if we don't take bold action. That's what it really comes down to."

This story originally appeared in Grist. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Tinnakorn Jorruang / iStock / Getty Images

By Dan Nosowitz

The budding research on cannabidiol, or CBD, attracts a great deal of interest in the agricultural field.

Read More Show Less
Oksana Khodakovskaia / iStock / Getty Images

By Jillian Kubala, MS, RD

The loquat (Eriobotrya japonica) is a tree native to China that's prized for its sweet, citrus-like fruit.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released new numbers that show vaping-related lung illnesses are continuing to grow across the country, as the number of fatalities has climbed to 33 and hospitalizations have reached 1,479 cases, according to a CDC update.

Read More Show Less
During the summer, the Arctic tundra is usually a thriving habitat for mammals such as the Arctic fox. Education Images / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Reports of extreme snowfall in the Arctic might seem encouraging, given that the region is rapidly warming due to human-driven climate change. According to a new study, however, the snow could actually pose a major threat to the normal reproductive cycles of Arctic wildlife.

Read More Show Less
Vegan rice and garbanzo beans meals. Ella Olsson / Pexels

By Alina Petre, MS, RD (CA)

One common concern about vegan diets is whether they provide your body with all the vitamins and minerals it needs.

Many claim that a whole-food, plant-based diet easily meets all the daily nutrient requirements.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
A fracking well looms over a residential area of Liberty, Colorado on Aug. 19. WildEarth Guardians / Flickr

A new multiyear study found that people living or working within 2,000 feet, or nearly half a mile, of a hydraulic fracturing (fracking) drill site may be at a heightened risk of exposure to benzene and other toxic chemicals, according to research released Thursday by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE)

Read More Show Less
Pope Francis flanked by representatives of the Amazon Rainforest's ethnic groups and catholic prelates march in procession during the opening of the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region at The Vatican on Oct. 07 in Vatican City, Vatican. Alessandra Benedetti / Corbis News / Getty Images

By Vincent J. Miller

The Catholic Church "hears the cry" of the Amazon and its peoples. That's the message Pope Francis hopes to send at the Synod of the Amazon, a three-week meeting at the Vatican that ends Oct. 27.

Read More Show Less

The crowd appears to attack a protestor in a video shared on Twitter by ITV journalist Mahatir Pasha. VOA News / Youtube screenshot

Some London commuters had a violent reaction Thursday morning when Extinction Rebellion protestors attempted to disrupt train service during rush hour.

Read More Show Less