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Domestic Terrorism Law Targets The Far Right: Here’s How It’ll Backfire

Above Photo: Protesters rally outside a bank to speak out against investment in the Dakota Access Pipeline in Portland, Oregon, on February 17, 2017. Alex Milan Tracy / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images.

The Democrat-sponsored bill has broad bipartisan support.

But civil rights groups say it’s open to misuse against climate and racial justice activists.

When Oregon democrats introduced a new state domestic terrorism bill in February, civil rights groups were reminded of a similar piece of legislation — and began sounding the alarm.

Georgia expanded  its state domestic terrorism statute in 2017 in response to the mass shooting perpetrated by white supremacist Dylann Roof against Black churchgoers in neighboring South Carolina. Atlanta legislators claimed that broadening their own state’s domestic terror laws to include certain attacks on property would somehow keep the public safe from far-right violence.

Critics of the legislation in Georgia said at the time that it could be used to target environmentalists and anti-racist activists as well.

They were right. Last month, 42 activists  were indiscriminately arrested and charged with domestic terrorism in Georgia for participating in the Defend the Atlanta Forest movement to stop Cop City. The flimsy arrest warrants cited the protesters for little more than having mud on their shoes.

With this sort of law enforcement abuse in mind, organizers in Oregon are currently fighting to stop the domestic terrorism bill, House Bill 2772, from passing in their state, even as it moves through the legislature with broad bipartisan support.

“Prosecutors providing assurances that a new terrorism law will only be used in the most narrow and responsible ways in Oregon doesn’t ease my worries in the least,” said Nick Caleb, a staff attorney at the climate justice advocacy group Breach Collective. Breach is part of a robust coalition of organizations — including the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, the Civil Liberties Defense Center, Imagine Black, and the Sunrise Movement PDX — fighting to stop the legislation being passed.

Oregon’s proposed legislation may not be as obviously open to misuse as the Republican-sponsored Georgia equivalent. The bill’s Democratic backers insist it is narrow in scope and finely tuned to address extremist attacks against “critical infrastructure” — a particular concern, they stress, following a spate of attacks  on power grid infrastructure last year in the Pacific Northwest and beyond, a number of which are believed to have been linked to neo-Nazi groups. Heading into the 2024 election year, concerns about a rise in January 6-style attacks are only further heightened.

It takes a fanciful view of law enforcement, however, to imagine that any such law is resistant to misuse against climate activists and Black liberationists. Like all domestic terrorism laws on the books in the U.S., Oregon’s proposed legislation is both unnecessary and potentially dangerous.

All the actions to which it would apply are already considered crimes; it is already illegal to vandalize property, for example. The domestic terror label simply gives greater discretion to the police and prosecutors to single out ideological enemies for harsher punishment. And it would go against all available evidence to believe that the police will make a regular target of the far right.

In a letter to Oregon’s House Judiciary Committee and the bill’s sponsors, the ACLU of Oregon said that the proposed legislation “would follow Georgia’s lead in adding a stigmatizing label and harsher punishment to property crimes that are already illegal under state law.” The letter noted that the law, “like other terrorism laws across the country, could be wielded to disproportionately target already overpoliced communities and to punish people expressing political beliefs.”

The bill’s sponsors — all Democrats — have been dismayed by the pushback from civil liberties organizations. “I have been severely disappointed in the rhetoric and tactics employed by a few groups: the ACLU of Oregon (ACLUoO) primary among them,” Democratic state Rep. Paul Evans, one of the bill’s sponsors, told me by email. The bill, he added, is “about protecting ‘critical infrastructure’ and has nothing to do with legitimate protest – unless someone believes blowing up a bridge or electrical station – is legitimate protest. Most Oregonians don’t believe this.”

The bill has been referred to the Oregon Legislature’s Ways and Means Committee and has not yet been scheduled for a vote. Evans told me, “I believe it will easily pass both chambers if it can get on the appropriate docket timeline.”

Oregon democrats might frame their support of the bill around concern for far-right attacks, but the legislation’s language echoes model bills written by the American Legislative Exchange Council on behalf of the fossil fuel industry. Those bills were aimed at increasing penalties faced by protesters who target so-called critical infrastructure, including protesting against pipelines and other energy infrastructure.

If passed, H.B. 2772 would make it a crime of domestic terrorism in the first degree to intentionally “disrupt the services provided by critical infrastructure” by destroying or “substantially” damaging that infrastructure. Anyone found guilty under the statute could face up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The law would also create the crime of domestic terrorism in the second degree, under which a person could be labeled a terrorist and sentenced to five years in prison and a $125,000 fine, for attempting to destroy “critical infrastructure” or possessing an undefined “destructive device” with such destruction in mind.

Given that pipelines — even those that are unfinished and contested — are considered “critical infrastructure” and the bill does not define what constitutes “substantial damage,” the legislation’s critics say that it opens the doors to label as terrorists those who engage in nonviolent direct action against rapacious fossil fuel industry construction.

“Attempts by direct action activists to engage in ‘disruption of services provided by critical infrastructure’ is a tried-and-true tactic on nonviolent civil disobedience for the urgent climate movement,” Sarah Alvarez, an attorney with the Civil Liberties Defense Center, told me.

Alvarez pointed to the example of the Valve Turners, environmental and Indigenous rights activists who shut off the valves of four major tar sands pipelines, as well as protesters in Minnesota who locked themselves to pipeline equipment to temporarily halt construction of the Line 3 pipeline, among others.

“As a result of these actions, people faced criminal charges — but they clearly weren’t terrorists worthy of facing serious prison time or the stigmatizing label,” said Alvarez. “This law risks conflating terrorism, and all its political baggage, with long historical tactics of climate and environmental activists, as well as some instances of street protests.”

We might think, too, of environmentalist Jessica Reznicek, who was given an excessive eight-year prison sentence for engaging in acts of property damage against the Dakota Access pipeline. Her sentence was dramatically increased thanks to a federal terrorism enhancement.

There are already ample laws on the books and tools available to police should they wish to take on extremist violence overwhelmingly perpetrated by the far right. But it is not for lack of capacity or resources that police in the state have regularly ignored these groups; there is a well-established pattern of police support for, and indeed membership of, civilian far-right organizations, including the Oath Keepers militia.

Like many of the nation’s whitest states, Oregon, 82 percent white, has long been a notable home to white supremacist groups and militias invested in the violent defense of white standing.

Oregon lawmakers proposed the domestic terrorism bill in response to a report published last year by the Oregon Secretary of State’s office arguing that more needed to be done to combat violent extremism in the state. “Over the past decade,” the report noted, “Oregon witnessed the sixth-highest number of domestic violent extremism incidents in the nation.”

While the report highlights examples of far-right extremist violence, it is rife with typical and misleading two-sidesism. “Between 2011 and 2020, the number of US domestic violence incidents based on ideological orientation between ‘far-right’ and ‘far-left’ was nearly equal,” the report noted, obfuscating the fact that many left-wing animal rights and environmental activists have been convicted as “terrorists” for acts of property damage in which no human or animal was hurt.

Meanwhile, over the last three decades, right-wing people and groups have been responsible for over 70 percent of all extremist killings in the U.S. In 2022, 21 of 25 murders categorized by the Anti-Defamation League as ideologically driven were carried out by the far right.

If even the report falsely equates deadly white supremacist violence with environmentalists’ property damage, we should have little faith that the law would do any better.

“The Secretary of State report on extremism demonstrated that there’s little appetite to actually grapple with the abuses of anti-terrorism laws and institutions that have arisen in this country over the last several decades, so Oregon is at high risk of repeating history,” said Caleb, of the Breach Collective.

This history  is one of permitting white supremacist violence to flourish, while focusing “counterterrorism” efforts against racial minorities. For instance, Muslim communities in Oregon, as elsewhere in the country, were aggressively surveilled and targeted in FBI stings following the 9/11 attacks.

The legislation’s opponents have also raised concerns about another proposed bill, which is intended to target paramilitary activity and militias by offering civil remedies to individuals whose rights are violated by organized private militia groups. The law would also provide the state attorney general greater power to block certain activities by paramilitary groups if it’s believed that illegal conduct will ensue. The paramilitary bill has drawn strong opposition from right wingers who believe that the law will only target armed right-wing groups.

Those who oppose the proposed legislation from the other side — as a potential overreach that could be used against anti-racists and climate justice fighters — have no interest in standing in coalition with Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer members. Their concerns, like those around the domestic terrorism bill, relate to the paramilitary bill’s loose definitions, which leave all too many openings for its weaponization against the very marginalized groups far-right militias harass and target.

In a March letter to the House Judiciary Committee, the Civil Liberties Defense Center wrote that the paramilitary law would require an “apparently low threshold needed to proceed” with a suit against an organized group. The letter noted that “based on the definition of ‘paramilitary activity,’ the law will be used against environmental, animal rights, racial justice, and climate actions, which are frequently well-organized, with various people taking on different roles in a protest.”

The far-right’s opposition to Democrat-sponsored anti-extremism bills does not make the proposed legislation worthy of support. An enemy of an enemy does not a friend make. For this very reason, longtime Black liberation and antifascist organizers have rejected the Democratic scramble, following the January 6 riots, to throw more laws at the problem of far-right extremism. It is, they understand, like asking white supremacists to abolish themselves.

Originally published in The Intercept.

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