Last week I wrote about Louisiana’s HB197, a bill that would violate the First Amendment rights of Louisiana. This bill was especially harsh on black protesters who have been protesting the construction of a $94 billion petrochemical plant that would double our state’s toxic emissions.
Also, these protesters are descendants of slaves buried on the construction site. That’s right, y’all, we have a big oil company that is desecrating the unmarked graves of slaves. It appears these companies really don’t see black people as human. What if this was your mother buried there? Would you want a pipeline going through her casket?
— Lamar White, Jr. (@LamarWhiteJr) June 14, 2020
Key penalties if this bill was to have been passed were imprisonment with hard labor for up to 3–15 years and fines of up to $5,000. That’s right — these protestors would be imprisoned, essentially becoming slaves, for protesting a corporation that wants to stick a pipeline in their ancestor’s graves — ancestors that died as slaves in America.
Also, if this bill would have passed, I could have been arrested for going down to the levee to take photos, such as the cover photo for this article. Our levees are considered water control structures that were included in the bill.
Governor Edwards’ Response To The Bill
In a letter written to Louisiana’s Speaker of the House, Clay Schexnayder, Governor Edwards wrote:
Please be advised that I have vetoed House Bill 197 of the 2020 Regular Session.
House Bill 197 was designed by Rep. Jerome Zeringue to add ‘water control structures, including floodgates and pump stations’ to the list of critical infrastructure contained in Act 692 of the 2018 Regular Session. While I support protecting critical water control structures and the intention of the bill, there are two critical problems that provide the reasons for my veto.
First, the second section of the bill provides for enhanced criminal penalties and a mandatory minimum jail sentence of three years if the unauthorized entry occurs during a ‘state of emergency.’ While this was intended by the author to cover only the imminent threat of a tropical event, it ends up being the default penalty. Louisiana is currently under eleven different states of emergency ranging from the most recent event of Tropical Storm Cristobal to the March flooding in 2016. Since Louisiana is in a constant state of emergency, there would likely never be a time when the lesser penalty is in effect.
Further, the term ‘water control structure’ is ill-defined in the bill. In many areas around the state, for example, levees are used for public recreation. Although clearly not intended by the bill, the inclusion of these structures could potentially criminalize conduct that does not endanger the water control structures. As stated above, I will be happy to work with Rep. Zeringue in a future session to protect this critical infrastructure, and I am confident we can amend Act 692 to provide a reasonable solution that does not have the unintended consequences of HB 197.
I have more than 2.5 cents to say about this. I really think this is more of a win for our rights than for clean energy — but it’s still a win against the petrochemical plants that want to run a pipeline through the graves of people who were brought over here and enslaved, raped, and eventually murdered by their owners. I simply cannot get past that.
The coldness and callousness of what these oil companies wanted to do to a gravesite are not just disgusting, but heartless. I really think our governor, who I voted for, really did the right thing here. He understands that we do need to protect our infrastructure. However, he saw right through Rep. Zeringue’s effort to weaponize “protecting water structures” in such a way that it would penalize you for using your First Amendment rights.
Think about the black protestors who were protesting the plant for building on the graves of their ancestors. Not only would their families’ graves be desecrated, but the fact that they were slaves was being used against their descendants. And they would have been enslaved for trying to prevent the desecration — that’s what the penalties in the bill called for: imprisonment with hard labor. It’s mind boggling that in 2020 people could be enslaved for protesting a company that wants to build upon their dead ancestors’ graves. Is that freedom?
Add into this mix the aftermath of George Floyd’s death by the hands of police officers who thought killing him was a fine thing to do. Speaking of protesting, Baton Rouge has had several protests in the past and some took place at the levee.
Personally, I’m grateful that our governor had the compassion and decency to veto that bill.
Cover photo is of the USS Kidd in downtown Baton Rouge at the levee. Taken by Johnna Crider.