A Louisiana bill seeks to punish black protesters for opposing those in the fossil fuel industry who want to desecrate the graves of their ancestors.
Gail Leboeuf was one of more than a dozen women who gathered on a small road that was a part of a large sugarcane field in S. James Parish. The women were protesting the construction of a 2,300 acre, $9.4 billion petrochemical plant that would double the toxic emissions in Cancer Alley. Cancer Alley is a part of Louisiana that is dotted with these fossil fuel plants — and, yes, Baton Rouge, where I live, is a part of it as well. The public health concern was amplified by a more personal concern.
Leboeuf’s ancestors were slaves who were owned by the plantation owners here in Louisiana. When they died, they were buried in unmarked graves that were not too far from where she was protesting. For many generations, her ancestors built this land while suffering at the hands of cruel slave owners. Today, big oil wants to desecrate the graves of her ancestors. A petrochemical company has already dug a pipeline through the cemetery in the last decade.
While protesting the site, Leboeuf wasn’t actually charged with a crime even though current state law prohibits gatherings near the underground pipeline without the permission of the plant. Her “crime” could have put her in prison for up to 5 years and cost her $1,000 in fines. A new bill wants to make the punishment harsher for her and other protesters statewide.
Formosa’s Louisiana subsidiary sent a letter to one of the protestors, Lavigne, and it denied her access to the cemetery on the following grounds: “No archeologist has been able to make any affirmative conclusion about the identity or ethnicity of the remains” that was discovered on the property. Lavigne responded, “We can’t prove it? They can’t prove it’s not our ancestors. They’re just coldhearted people.”
Under HB197, these penalties would be increased. If you were to protest on fossil fuel sites during a state of emergency, this bill would have you complete a mandatory minimum of 3 years in prison “at hard labor.” The maximum is 15 years and the fines could be up to $5,000. The bill was put forth by State Representative Jerome Zeringue (R). The bill could be signed into law any day now. It was sent to Governor Edwards on June 2 for executive approval.
This law isn’t just punishing Leboeuf and her fellow protestors — but will seek to do so to anyone protesting a “critical infrastructure.” Here’s a list of critical infrastructure noted in the bill:
Any and all equipment or other immovable or movable property located within or upon:
- Chemical manufacturing facilities
- Electrical power generating facilities
- Electrical transmission substations and distribution substations
- Water intake structures and water treatment facilities
- Natural gas transmission compressor stations
- Liquified natural gas terminals and storage facilities
- Natural gas and hydrocarbon storage facilities
- Transportation facilities
- Ports Railroad switching yards
- Trucking terminals
- Water control structures
- Pumping stations
The penalties for committing these “crimes” — e.g., protesting a pipeline being dug through your dead ancestors’ graves — are draconian. They are imprisonment with or without hard labor for up to 5 years and fined up to $1,000 or both. Add in the state of emergency and it gets harsher. If Louisiana is in a state of emergency and a group wants to protest big oil running pipelines where your family’s graves are, you could pay up to $5,000 in fines and be imprisoned at hard labor for up to 3–15 years. In essence, you become a slave for exercising your Constitutional rights.
State of Emergency
Right now, Louisiana is still under a state of emergency due to the coronavirus pandemic. This new legislation added extra penalties for trespassing during a state emergency, such as this one, and it was approved by the state senate last week.
Pam Spees, the senior attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights who is representing RISE St. James, a nonprofit that is challenging the existing pipeline law, told HuffPost: “We may be in states of emergency at various levels for the next two years due to COVID-19. What’s happening is they’re being chilled from exercising their rights.”
When my mother died, she wanted to be cremated and have her ashes scattered in the Mississippi River. I often go down to the river to reflect and I feel her around me. I don’t know much about my own ancestors — I grew up away from my family. I just recently learned through AncestryDNA that I have a sister and two brothers on my father’s side.
However, I can still imagine the hurt and anger that these protestors have. Not only are their family’s graves being desecrated, but the fact that they were slaves is being used against their descendants. The wound of slavery is still festering in America — especially for black people who are victimized by law enforcement simply due to the color of their skin.
Imagine dressing a wound for a moment. You clean it and put some type of antibiotic on it, right? Now imagine that instead of the antibiotic, you pour kerosene on it and light it on fire. This type of agony is what is being done by the state government and the fossil fuel industry on these protesters who just want their ancestors to be able to rest in peace.
Cover photo of the ExxonMobil refinery behind the I-10 bridge in Baton Rouge by Johnna Crider.