While the nation is in the midst of a debate about racialized police violence and how law enforcement should respond to protest, several states and the Trump administration are adding fuel to the fire — and once again, it is communities of color and Indigenous people who are on the frontlines getting burned.
As our attention is diverted by a global pandemic, an economy in intensive care after emerging from an induced coma, and the explosion of rage after the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police, President TrumpDonald TrumpOmar, Muslim Democrats decry Islamophobia amid death threats On The Money — Powell pivots as inflation rises Trump cheers CNN's Cuomo suspension MORE just last week signed an executive order to waive a number of environmental rules for infrastructure projects ranging from highways to pipelines. At the same time, a number of states — most recently Kentucky, South Dakota and West Virginia — have moved to criminalize protests against “critical infrastructure,” particularly fossil fuel pipelines, that are deemed to impede their construction or operation.
In short, the potential penalties for engaging in an environmental protest have gotten higher just as the Trump administration is creating more reasons to protest.
This is taking place in a global context of environmental activism becoming more deadly. A recent report on "environmental conflicts and defenders" by researchers at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona in Spain, published by the journal Global Environmental Change, noted that 164 environmental defenders — people opposing projects they believe would cause serious environmental harm — were murdered in 2018 in various parts of the world.
Those deaths, the report said, were part of an upward trend of such deaths over the past 15 years. Recent news stories suggest the trend is unabated. For example, The Guardian reported that by mid-April this year three environmental activists had been killed in Mexico alone.
Many of the activists who have been martyred — like Berta Cáceres, who in 2016 was shot dead in her home in Honduras by an assassin associated with a dam she was protesting — have been Indigenous people. The report by the Spain researchers points out that when Indigenous people involved in environmental mobilization “face significantly higher rates of violence.”
We saw this in 2016 when the Standing Rock Sioux and other Indigenous tribes sought to block the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which would carry crude oil through environmentally sensitive and sacred Indigenous lands to refineries in the southern U.S. While there were no deaths directly linked to the protests, there were hundreds of arrests. As was true with the recent anti-racism protests around the country sparked by the death of George Floyd, journalists as well as peaceful protestors were caught in the dragnet.
Now Indigenous tribes are on the frontlines of yet another pipeline protest, this time against the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline in northern Minnesota. Enbridge is a Canadian company that wants to replace a 1960s-era pipeline that brings to the United States crude oil from tar sands in Canada. Particularly concerning for Stop Line 3, a group organizing protests and court fights against the project, is a 2018 agreement with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission they say will have Enbridge pay all of the costs of law enforcement actions required to protect the project from protestors. “Minnesota law enforcement will have a bottomless tab open with a Canadian multinational corporation to cover any costs related to quelling resistance to the pipeline,” the group said in a statement, raising the specter of public law enforcement operating essentially as Enbridge private security guards.
Instead of spending millions to squelch rebellion from Indigenous protestors and their allies, the authors of the environmental defenders report write, “The role of Indigenous communities in environmental defense must be recognized and celebrated. Ongoing efforts to recognize their territories and the right to self-determination as enshrined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous peoples must be accelerated.”
If Trump’s gambit to waive environmental rules survives promised court challenges, we are likely to see these same types of clashes also unfold in economically struggling and predominantly black urban communities, many of which have already suffered through the devastation done to their communities by such infrastructure follies as the Interstate Highway System projects launched in the 1950s and 1960s. The residents living with the effects of these projects — increased pollution, destroyed economic and social ecosystems, and impacts from climate change — are pushing back against expanding these types of projects, especially without their input.
The Trump administration is hoping that a preoccupied country that is scared for its economic future won’t notice — or won’t care — that the right of its residents to defend their communities and our shared environment from harm is being trammeled. But with the planet facing the existential threat of catastrophic climate change caused by fossil fuel consumption, the stakes could not be higher. It is more important than ever to place environmental protection and resiliency as well as the protection and resiliency of frontline communities at the center of the planning and execution of infrastructure projects.
What should not be happening is a corporate-backed armed opposition to the principled act of people protecting their lives and the life of the planet.
Isaiah J. Poole is editorial director of The Next System Project at The Democracy Collaborative.