Above Photo: © Greenpeace
Houston, Texas — Today, a grand jury refused to issue felony indictments against the Greenpeace USA activists and others charged following the peaceful protest on September 12, 2019 at the Houston Ship Channel . Thirty-one people had been charged with a felony by the Harris County District Attorney’s Office under Texas’ controversial new anti-protest law, but none were indicted on this charge by a Harris County grand jury.
Instead, 25 misdemeanor indictments were issued for obstructing a highway or other passageway. Six cases were dismissed completely before submission to the grand jury. Twenty-two people still face a separate federal misdemeanor charge for blocking a navigable waterway.
Greenpeace USA General Counsel Tom Wetterer said:
“We are grateful that the Harris County grand jury carefully considered the relevant facts and law in making the right decision not to issue indictments on the egregious felony charge. First and foremost, no one violated Texas’ critical infrastructure statute. But importantly, this law and those like it around the country unconstitutionally criminalize peaceful protest and violate First Amendment rights to free speech. They also disproportionately affect Black, Brown, Indigenous, and low-income communities who are fighting for their lives as they try to stay above water in this climate crisis. It is vital for our democracy and for justice that we protect the right to peaceful dissent. As for the new misdemeanor charge, we will continue to mount the best possible defense for our activists.”
Secretive lobbying groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and oil companies like Koch Industries and Marathon Petroleum have been instrumental in the spread of anti-protest legislation across the country . Such laws restrict the right to peaceful demonstration and disproportionately affect Black, Brown, Indigenous, and working class communities who bear the burden of climate impacts and fossil fuel pollution. Over 100 bills like this that have been introduced around the country, all but 17 have been defeated.
Activist Rico Sisney, who participated in the protest and was cleared of the felony charge today, said:
“This felony charge is now behind me, and while my family and I are feeling a tremendous sense of relief, Black, Brown and Indigenous people on the frontlines have had no relief from polluted air and water and climate-fueled disasters. Fossil fuel companies have made trillions of dollars while endangering billions of people and gotten away with it — just like corporations and politicians get away with dehumanizing migrant, disabled, low-income, and other marginalized people. If we truly prioritize the well-being of the most vulnerable over the profits of the most powerful, we must continue to use our gifts and raise our voices for a just transition and renewable energy for all.”
While these activists have been cleared of felony charges, they are not the only ones facing consequences under the new wave of ALEC-backed anti-protest legislation. Activists and water protectors from the L’eau Est La Vie (Water Is Life) Camp in Atakapa and Ishak Territory are mounting a constitutional challenge to Louisiana’s anti-protest law.
Cherri Foytlin, one of the L’eau Est La Vie activists, said:
“I’m glad to see punitive felony charges dropped against my allies from Greenpeace, but the fight against unconstitutional anti-protest laws in this country is far from over. The legal battle in front of my fellow activists and I will take years to resolve, with each passing day sucking up more of our resources. The consequences could stay with us for the rest of our lives. This is exactly what the oil industry wants, to keep us tied up in court and out of the streets fighting for climate justice. But the risks of inaction are too great to stay silent. I know our movement won’t rest until the air we breathe and the water we drink come before oil company profits.”
 On September 12, 2019, 22 Greenpeace activists engaged in a peaceful protest at the largest fossil fuel thoroughfare in the country for 18 hours. The shores of the 52-mile Houston Ship Channel are also home to the second-largest petrochemical complex in the world. Refineries operated by ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, and more sit dangerously close to homes and schools. Every day, these facilities threaten the health of the majority of Black, Brown, and low-income communities that surround them.
 Ten states — North Dakota, South Dakota, Oklahoma, Iowa, Louisiana, Indiana, Tennessee, Texas, Missouri, and Wisconsin — have enacted ALEC-style bills designed to restrict peaceful protest against the oil and gas industry into law. Generally, these anti-protest laws share several common elements. They create new penalties for peaceful protest, they broadly redefine the term “critical infrastructure” to include everything from cell phone towers to trucking terminals, and they seek to create liability for organizations that support protesters by treating such support as a criminal conspiracy. Any claims that the laws would address unlawful conduct is redundant to already existing laws.