Last summer, Sabine Von Mering, a professor of German at Brandeis University, traveled more than 1,500 miles from Boston to Minneapolis to protest the replacement of the Line 3 pipeline that stretches from the oil sands from Canada to Minnesota.
Along with another protester, she locked herself in a semi-truck in the middle of a roadway, according to a court filing, as a means of peaceful resistance. But when she was arrested, she was charged with a serious crime: felony theft, punishable by five years in prison.
“It’s very scary that they’re criminalizing us like this and facing jail time,” Von Mering, 54, said of his June arrest. “But what can I do? I feel responsible towards my children and future generations.
The felony charges come as more than a dozen states have passed laws to criminalize protests against fossil fuels and the federal government has stepped up its own tactics to monitor and penalize protesters.
Von Mering is one of nearly 900 demonstrators who have been arrested in Minnesota for protesting pipeline construction, with the vast majority of arrests occurring in the summer of 2021, and one of dozens making facing felony charges. Construction of the Line 3 pipeline was finalized in October 2020 and transports 760,000 barrels of oil per day through northern Minnesota. But its construction for years has sparked fierce protests and legal challenges, led by Indigenous activists in northern Minnesota who worried about the potential impacts of oil spills and the pipeline’s threat to harvest treaty rights. wild rice. While most arrests have led to misdemeanor or felony charges for crimes such as “disturbing the peace” and “trespassing,” felony charges like Von Mering’s Mean Protesters risk years in prison.
Lawyers say that in Minnesota, high charges are a new tactic to challenge protest actions against pipeline construction. They see them as further proof of the close ties between the Minnesota government and the fossil fuel industry. This follows a Guardian report that Canadian pipeline company Enbridge, which is building Line 3, reimbursed the Minnesota Police Department $2.4 million for time spent arresting protesters and purchasing equipment, including ballistic helmets. Experts say the arrest refund strategy is a new technique in both Minnesota and the United States, and there are fears it could not be replicated.
“I do a lot of representation for people in political protests and I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Jordan Kushner, a defense attorney representing clients charged in connection with the Line 3 protests.
Two of Kushner’s clients have been charged with the felony of “assisting in a suicide attempt” for crawling inside a pipe. The charge is for someone who “intentionally counsels, encourages, or assists another person who attempts but fails to commit suicide,” according to Minnesota law, and carries a seven-year sentence. Authorities alleged that the protesters were putting their lives at risk by staying inside the pipeline.
“To put it charitably, it’s a very creative use of this law,” Kushner said.
Across the country, pipeline protests have faced backlash in various forms from the oil and gas industry and various state lawmakers who oppose the tactics of delaying the often crowned protests. success. Since 2017, 36 states have passed laws that criminalize protests over “critical infrastructure” — a broad category that can include pipelines and oil refineries, depending on the state. Other strategies to discourage protests have included Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) spying on opponents of Keystone XL in North and South Dakota, and Customs and Customs drones flying over protesters’ homes. border protection.
Outside the United States, authorities in British Columbia have also used arrests and prosecutions to deter protests challenging the Coastal GasLink pipeline. In Line 3, the protests came to a head last summer when hundreds of protesters were arrested on misdemeanor charges. But lawyers representing those arrested say the charges have started to escalate, with some bordering on the absurd.
At least 91 felony charges have been brought against 89 defendant protesters in Minnesota, according to data compiled by the Pipeline Legal Action Network, a network of lawyers representing Line 3 defendants, and confirmed by the Guardian. It is likely that the total number of felony arrests was higher, as the data does not include all arrests of Indigenous protesters, many of whom had their cases transferred to tribal courts. At least 66 felony theft charges against Line 3 protesters remain open and pending in Minnesota courts.
“I’ve never seen felony theft and I’ve never seen felony-assisted suicide used in environmental protests,” said Tara Houska, tribal lawyer, activist and citizen of Couchiching First Nation, located along the Minnesota-Ontario border.
“Some of these charges are a pretty obvious overreach on the part of prosecutors to try to punish people for participating in a protest.”
Jason Goward, 37, is another protester who was arrested for robbery. A citizen of the Fond Du Lac Ojibwe band located near the pipeline’s terminus in Duluth, Minnesota, Goward started out as a construction worker on Line 3 in 2020. Yet he was soon distracted by his job. The pipeline crosses the treaty lands of the Ojibwe tribe and he has seen sandhill cranes – his grandmother’s clan animals – fleeing the construction site. The guilt reached a breaking point, and Goward walked off the job in protest. He was arrested last July for locking himself on a piece of pipeline equipment. Although his charges were eventually dropped after his case was transferred to Red Lake Tribal Court, the consequences of his arrest still follow him.
“I still can’t find a job to this day… No one wants to hire someone [arrested for] criminal theft,” Goward said. (Background checks routinely flag arrest records, even when charges are dropped.)
Still, Goward says he doesn’t regret his decision to protest the construction of Line 3.
“What kept me going was knowing that one day my sons, when they return to the reserve, [will know] that I tried to keep water, rice and nature clean so they could live off the land,” he said.
Minnesota police weren’t the only group asking the pipeline company to be reimbursed for the time spent dealing with Line 3 protesters. Minnesota prosecutors also demanded payment from Enbridge for the time they went on to file complaints against demonstrators. According to documents obtained by the Center for Protest Law and Litigation, Attorney Jonathan Frieden — who oversees the prosecution of nearly 500 Line 3 cases — charged an Enbridge-funded escrow account for $12,207 in 2021. ultimately rejected.
An Enbridge spokesman, Michael Barnes, said the company does not “determine who broke the law or how they are prosecuted” and said the Minnesota Public Utility Commission determines out-of-pocket costs. Frieden did not respond to a request for comment.
Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, director of the Center for Protest Law and Litigation, warns that Enbridge reimbursement of police costs creates “exceptional corruption and perversion of the justice system and democracy” by “funding law enforcement to act against the political opponents of the company”.
The Minnesota Legislature has introduced 17 bills to expand protest penalties, six of which are classified as critical infrastructure bills. A bill introduced in the 2021 legislature, but which did not pass, would have extended the felony penalty to those who “intentionally” recruit, train or “conspire” with an intruder.
Activists are pushing to drop charges against Line 3 protesters. Others have moved from Line 3 in Minnesota to protest Enbridge’s other pipeline, Line 5, in Michigan. But protesters like Von Mering are still awaiting their fate in court.
“It makes no sense that I have to defend myself against the theft charge as I try to protect the water,” she said. “They think I’m a criminal. But I am not.”