In 2012, the 81-year-old nun Megan Rice—along with co-conspirators Gregory Boertje-Obed and Michael Walli—put every anti-war protester in America to shame when she snuck undetected into the Y-12 National Security Complex, threw blood on the walls, and hung Biblically significant banners from the secretive maximum security site.
The actions of the three seniors, all members of a Christian pacifist group, were embarrassing for the Obama administration, and the activists were charged with two felonies: trespassing on government property and destruction and depredation. The charges carried up to 16 years in prison.
The case was turned over on appeal in 2015 and now Sister Megan Rice is a hero. When she got out of prison she told the New York Times she was looking forward to getting back to her life’s work of ending war.
But if she had been living in another time (ours) and in another state (Oklahoma) her personal conviction could have had disastrous consequences for her order and the religious communities that had supported her.
Bill Quigley has been a public interest lawyer since 1977; he’s defended a number of environmental and anti-war activist, including Sister Rice and several other trespassing Catholic priests and sisters. Last week Oklahoma enacted a law making some organizations liable for the actions of protesting trespassers. Which means, Quigley says, “their religious communities could be required to pay for any damages their members caused in trespassing.”
This probably wasn’t what the author of the law had in mind. But when you target the networks that support dissent you’ll find they come in many forms.
Since November’s election, the ACLU has counted more than 30 bills introduced in 20 states to criminalize various forms of protest. In Tennessee, a driver who mows down a protester blocking traffic could be given “civil immunity”; in North Dakota it could soon be a crime to cover your face during a protest. A recent letter from the UN called bills like these “incompatible with U.S. obligation under international human rights.”
Last week, as The Intercept found, a uniquely risky installment in this anti-protest series had been signed quietly into law in Oklahoma. In one piece of legislation, the fines and minimum jail sentences for trespassing or tampering with “critical infrastructure” like ports, gas processing plants, and chemical factories had been expanded. As a lawyer told the publication, something as simple as hopping a fence and spray-painting a message on an oil-storage tank could come with a fine of $100,000 or up to 10 years in prison.
These laws, like the ones granting immunity to motorists who drive over activists, make it easier to remove and jail the kinds of people who have successfully blockaded roads and stalled pipeline construction across the country. But a second law just passed in Oklahoma criminalizes the people who assist them, making people or organizations who provide vague “remuneration” for people who trespass “vicariously liable.”
“Laws which criminalize trespass have been on the books forever,” Quigley says. “Trying to criminalize people who provide compensation to people who trespassed are brand new and probably unconstitutional.”
What counts as “compensation” or “remuneration” aren’t outlined in the law itself: The bill’s author suggested what counts as payment, whether it’s money or housing or a cheeseburger, would be determined by a court. But it’s clearly intended to conjure the image of George Soros-funded radicals raking in $1,500 a day to play-act opposition to Trump.
The trope of the agitator trading a picket sign for a check has been around to delegitimize protest basically as long as organizing itself. Sometimes it’s correct; often it’s not. The Civil Rights movement was considered by many in the South to be the work of “outside agitators.” Similar labels have been applied to Cindy Sheehan, who protested Bush after her son was killed in Iraq, and to ACORN, which supposedly cut the checks that funded the uprisings in Ferguson. When constituents showed up at town halls to berate their GOP representatives recently, it was suggested repeatedly by the White House and GOP lawmakers that they were doing it for cash.
But remuneration, when it comes to the systems that support protest, isn’t that simple at all. And astroturfing does happen—it’s just hard to imagine a court going after the Koch brothers for something like this.
No activist is an island, and the vague Oklahoma law, depending on how it’s enforced, could knee-cap the institutions that help protesters get legal counsel and assistance—or put unsuspecting people in vulnerable positions if they organize a completely legal action and someone who attends goes a bit off-script.
Theoretically, at the mercy of a law like this, someone who organized free buses to the Million Women’s march could be liable for damages. Or one of the pro-bono legal organizations whose numbers street protesters write on their arms. Celebrities who donate to the Standing Rock Camps could be fined, too.
As Malcolm Harris recently pointed out, there are paid protesters on the left, though they aren’t exactly the “professional anarchists” or astroturfed anti-Trumpists the administration invokes. They’re the organizers and labor reps who have fueled leftist movements for decades, people who can be invaluable in sustaining long-term displays of dissent once the causal (if genuine) marchers go back to their day jobs.
“The left has many hard-working volunteers,” Harris wrote, “but it’s hard to build a movement on moonlighting alone.” And making movement-building difficult, he added, is exactly what the Trump administration is after. We might like to imagine every organic uprising the product of nothing but sheer social progress and grit, but even Rosa Parks had the NAACP and liberal donors behind her when she refused her seat on the bus.
When I set out to report this story, I was thinking about such behind-the-scenes donations of money and time, and how they might have been reconfigured in the court using the rhetorical device of the “paid protester.” Nearly every effective action I’ve attended in my life has been facilitated in some part by longstanding networks that have filled in the gaps, even if it’s just with hot food. And as activist fatigue sets in and people with means opt to donate money instead of putting boots on ground, these organizations may be even more crucial.
But when I contacted a number of country’s most active organizations, they declined to speculate or comment on the law; presenting such a clear roadmap of organized resistance, even in the past, could attract state scrutiny.
When I spoke to Mark Foegel, a 28-year veteran organizer at Greenpeace, he thought it was just these sorts of institutionally effective organizations the Oklahoma law was attempting to cripple. Foegel’s seen this kind of thing before, he says. Three people he works with are being sued by Canada’s largest paper manufacturer.
“They want to keep us tied up in court,” he says. “Make us spend our money on lawyers, and eat up our staff time fighting these bogus charges rather than doing the advocacy we’re supposed to be doing on behalf of our supporters.”
Meanwhile, on a much smaller scale, Mark Sanderson of Veterans Respond, a group of veterans fighting environmental injustice across the country, could be affected by laws like this. Sanderson doesn’t have anyone currently working in Oklahoma—but he could, and he admits if he’s reimbursing people for travel costs to go fight pipeline construction there could be a legal argument made against him.
“But with stuff like this, I’m curious as to how and what they decide to try and prosecute,” he says. “There are numerous right-wing orgs popping up and organizing and deploying protesters to sites such as Berkeley, or the monuments in New Orleans.”
Sanderson lives in Texas, and he says anyone in his area who speaks out about environmental issues is dismissed as “not from around here,” so he’s used to the sentiment—if not the reality—of the new law.
Sanderson explains that Veterans Respond takes great care to cooperate with the cops and stay within the boundaries of peaceful, legal protest. But “it’s been a constant fear of mine since the beginning,” he says. “That things that are legal now will become illegal under the current political climate.”