In the 1960s, millions of people took to the streets to protest against the Vietnam War and to support Martin Luther King in his quest for social justice. Today, those people would all be in prison, their lives in ruins and saddled with crushing financial burdens. Welcome to the brave new world of government oppression.
Government is intended to promote a civil society where people of all ethnic groups, religious faiths, linguistic preferences, and sexual orientations can thrive by dint of hard work and creative endeavor. The theory is that maximizing the talents of each individual will benefit everyone in society. It seeks to create a social order that is more than just angel food cake and white bread and more of a gumbo spiced with ingredients for many cultures.
That’s the theory; the reality is quite a bit different. Government can become an instrument of oppression if it is controlled by those who seek to concentrate political power in their own hands by taking it away from others. The world is facing a reckoning brought about by changes in the climate caused by human activity, primarily extracting and burning fossil fuels to power daily life — a process that wastes a prodigious amount of energy while burdening the atmosphere with massive amounts of pollutants that promote global heating.
In the quest for never ending growth, we have pumped our aquifers dry, turned out lakes and rivers into toxic waterways, and created deserts where once there were none. When people attempt to adapt to changes in the environment by migrating to other places, they are deemed undesirables who should be murdered at the border to protect those within.
Greta Thunberg Acquitted
I apologize in advance for the length of this article. Usually I try to limit my fulminations to less than 1500 words on the theory that we all have busy lives and short attention spans. The days when people used to read 10,000 word essays in Colliers or the Saturday Evening Post with their feet propped up in front of the fire are long gone. But this is a topic that does not lend itself to being compressed into a few paragraphs, so please bear with me.
In The UK last week, Greta Thunberg had a case brought against her by the government for breaching Section 14 of the Public Order Act dismisses. Section 14 is a draconian statute enacted by the corrupt Tory government of Rishi Sunak designed to prohibit public protests, no matter how peaceful. Thunberg and her colleagues had the effrontery to stand outside a hotel where fossil fuel muckety mucks were meeting to plot their next assault on the environment.
After a two day trial, judge John Laws ((I swear I am not making this up!) exonerated Thunberg and her co-defendants, finding that Section 14 was so vague that no one could possibly know whether they were in or out of compliance with it. According to the BBC, the judge said, “It is quite striking to me that there were no witness statements taken from anyone in the hotel, approximately 1,000 people, or from anyone trying to get in. There was no evidence of any vehicles being impeded, no evidence of any interference with emergency services, or any risk to life.” He added that the protest was “throughout peaceful, civilized and non-violent” and criticized evidence provided by the prosecution about the location of where the demonstrators should be moved to, saying the only helpful footage he received was “made by a protester.”
Perhaps no state in the nation has more actively supported the destruction of its environment to benefit the fossil fuel and chemical industries than Louisiana, which is proud of the fact that a substantial portion of the state has been known for decades as Cancer Alley, thanks to the unusually high incidence of life threatening health issues that afflict those who live there.
Most of them are persons of color, trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty. The land around all those refineries and chemical plants is cheap, which means it is often the only place where the poor can afford to live. A report by Earthjustice says a recent study found that communities of color face pollution levels that are 7 to 21 times greater than those in industrialized white communities. It identified Louisiana’s permitting system as the main cause of air pollution in Cancer Alley.
The EPA and Justice Department were conducting an investigation to determine if the state was discriminating against some of its citizens. The state sued both agencies in an attempt to block the investigations. US federal court judge James Cain, who was appointed by Donald Trump, ruled in favor of the state of Louisiana, saying what the government was doing amounted to “government overreach” (a code phrase that is heard frequently from those who were suckled by the Federalist Society).
“The public interest here is that governmental agencies abide by its laws, and treat all of its citizens equally, without considering race,” Cain wrote. “To be sure, if a decision maker has to consider race to decide, it has indeed participated in racism. Pollution does not discriminate.” So, to be clear, Cain says if you have to prove discrimination by referring to the race of those affected, that is racially based government overreach and must be prohibited.
If you think that tortured logic is judicial codswallop, bear in mind that the three Supreme Court judges appointed by Trump think the same way and are about to eviscerate the EPA’a ability to carry out its mission. No one seems to remember that the EPA was created by Republicans.
Here is a case where a state government has clearly placed the interests of corporations ahead of the interests of its citizens. In effect, it has said to those who live in Cancer Alley that the state and has no intention of lifting a finger to help them and that they should hurry up and die to reduce the surplus population.
But we aren’t done dealing with Louisiana yet. Not content to ignore the needs of some of its most disadvantaged citizens, the state under governor Jeff Landry has sued the EPA, demanding it release thousands of emails between the agency and those same disadvantage citizens. Landry is a fierce proponent for the fossil fuel and chemical industries who was elected last November after serving 8 years as the state’s attorney general.
“The Louisiana attorney general’s office protects industry more than they protect the people,” Sharon Lavigne, a resident of St James parish where Cancer Alley is located told The Guardian. She has long fought industrial proliferation in her community, and whose emails were targeted in the request. “Maybe that’s why they got all of these emails, just to see what we’re doing and to see how they can stop us.”
The request also asks for emails with national and local media including MSNBC, the Washington Post and the Advocate, specifying nine journalists by name. “We are deeply concerned by what appears to be an attempt to intimidate journalists and interfere with their ability to report on alarming matters of environmental injustice — in particular, the dangerous toxicity of air in predominantly Black areas of Louisiana,” said Kai Falkenberg, the general counsel for The Guardian in the US.
“[The Freedom of Information Act] is an essential tool for informing the public on the workings of government, but in this case, we’re concerned that the state of Louisiana is abusing that law to prevent reporters from engaging in news gathering on matters of public interest to readers in Louisiana and around the world.”
Government Oppression Of Journalism In Canada
A journalist in Canada was arrested recently while reporting on a police operation to clear an encampment for homeless Indigenous people. She says she fears the charges will chill further reporting of marginalized groups. Brandi Morin is an Indigenous journalist who was arrested on 10 January while documenting police efforts to dismantle the camp in the city of Edmonton.
Morin was interviewing the camp’s leader when police created a perimeter of yellow tape around the camp. After a scuffle broke out, an officer ordered her to join other reporters outside the perimeter. She refused to leave and was arrested. “As someone who has covered police action against Indigenous peoples, I know of the violence and brutality that our people experience. It was important for me to be there as a witness,” she told The Guardian.
The authorities said they made extensive efforts to ensure journalists have access to encampment closures. “They are allowed to capture footage while standing a safe distance from the worksite. This is done to protect them from the unpredictable hazards of an encampment clean-up, such as explosions, fire, biohazards and weapons concerns, and to protect the privacy of encampment residents.”
Morin was photographed and fingerprinted — and realized that she was now in the police database. “I thought about all of the violence against our people and how police use mugshots of Indigenous women and youth when they’re missing, to identify them and to criminalize them.”
Morin has made a career of reporting on climate crisis and Indigenous issues, documenting tailing pond leaks in First Nations communities as well as the national crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. But the emotional toll of the charges have weighed heavily on her. “I am a strong person and a strong woman. But there have been moments where I have felt defeated. There have been moments when I’ve have felt like getting out of this work. And that terrifies me. Because if I do, they are successful in silencing me.”
Morin says she will plead not guilty to the charges. If convicted, she could face a maximum of two years in jail. “For too long, our people’s voices were silenced. Their stories are starting to make headlines. This isn’t just about me. Every other journalist could be targeted. This is what we’re called to do as journalists — to hold powers to account and to go places that are contentious and difficult and tough. To do our jobs.” Such actions deserve severe punishment, apparently.
George Monbiot On Government Oppression
George Monbiot may be the most intelligent and capable journalist in the world today. His thoughts have been featured here on CleanTechnica on a number of occasions. He reacted to the arrest and prosecution of Greta Thunberg in an opinion piece for The Guardian on February 2. Here is what he had to say (lightly edited).
In a world built by plutocrats, the powerful are protected while vengeful laws silence their critics.
Why are peaceful protesters treated like terrorists, while actual terrorists (especially on the far right, and especially in the US) often remain unmolested by the law? Why, in the UK, can you now potentially receive a longer sentence for “public nuisance” — non-violent civil disobedience — than for rape or manslaughter? Why are ordinary criminals being released early to make space in overcrowded prisons, only for the space to be refilled with political prisoners: people trying peacefully to defend the habitable planet?
There’s a simple explanation. It was clearly expressed by a former analyst at the US Department of Homeland Security. “You don’t have a bunch of companies coming forward saying: ‘I wish you’d do something about these right wing extremists.’” The disproportionate policing of environmental protest, the new offences and extreme sentences, the campaigns of extrajudicial persecution by governments around the world are not, as politicians constantly assure us, designed to protect society. They’re a response to corporate lobbying.
Last week the UN’s special rapporteur on environmental defenders, Michel Forst, issued the kind of bulletin you might expect to see written about the Sisi regime in Egypt or Vladimir Putin’s Russia. But it concerned the UK. It noted that draconian anti-protest laws, massive sentences, and court rulings forbidding protesters from explaining their motives to juries are crushing “fundamental freedoms” here. He pointed out that until recently it was very rare “for members of the public to be imprisoned for peaceful protest in the UK”. Now you can get six months merely for marching.
He also highlighted the outrageous treatment of people convicted of no crime. Peaceful environmental campaigners are being held on bail for up to two years, subjected to electronic tags, GPS tracking and curfews, and deprived of their social lives and political rights. This is one of many examples of process as punishment. Even before you have been tried, let alone found guilty, your life is shredded.
This bombshell report was ignored by almost all the media. You shouldn’t be surprised. With a few exceptions, the media belongs to the corporate-political complex that demanded these laws. All over the world, the billionaire press has been demonizing peaceful campaigners and lobbying for ever more oppressive measures against those who challenge destructive industries.
However absurd the media’s hyperbole, governments rush to meet its demands. In Germany, the authorities launched an organised crime investigation into the environmental protest movement Letzte Generation. Italy is using anti-mafia laws against an allied group of environmental defenders, Ultima Generazione. In France and the US, peaceful green protesters are labelled and treated as terrorists. These governments must know they aren’t dealing with organised crime, the mafia or terrorists. But by using these labels they hope to isolate and ostracise peaceful protesters while justifying a madly disproportionate legal response.
In many cases, laws are proposed or drafted by corporate-funded lobby groups masquerading as think tanks, such as Policy Exchange in the UK and the American Legislative Exchange Council in the US. Such groups create legal templates for crushing protest movements, then press for their adoption all over the world. This tactic has been chillingly effective.
In the UK, the government has truncated parliamentary scrutiny to force extreme measures on to the statute books. Judges have jailed environmental defenders for seeking to tell the jury why they took their actions. In 2023, two peaceful protesters who unveiled a banner on a bridge, Marcus Decker and Morgan Trowland, were handed sentences of two and a half and three years: the longest of their kind in modern history. Decker, a German citizen living with his partner in the UK, now faces deportation when he is released. There is nothing just or proportionate about any of this.
Even worse, both public authorities and corporations have been dropping injunctions on people who have protested, and, for that matter, those they believe might protest. As the UN rapporteur pointed out, many peaceful protesters are “being punished twice for the same action” — facing both criminal trials and civil injunctions. Simply being named on an injunction exposes you to potentially massive financial penalties, as the named people — the defendants — typically have to pay the legal costs of the claimants.
If the defendants challenge the injunction, the costs can spiral into hundreds of thousands of pounds. I’ve been contacted by several people who have never committed a crime, who have told me they are being ruined by inclusion on these lists. These costs are, in effect, fines that can be levied by either public or private bodies against anyone who disagrees with them. They amount to punishment of the poor by the rich. Corporations become, in effect, prosecuting authorities.
Worse still, the police can also slap an injunction on peaceful campaigners, even if they’ve done nothing to offend the law. Last year, Surrey police handed an “antisocial behavior injunction” to Colin Shearn, a retired corporate executive, on the grounds that he had been asking “endless questions about air traffic” at Farnborough airport. His questions, letters, and information requests were polite and considered, but this, apparently, counts for nothing. By pure coincidence, three weeks after its most effective critic was silenced by this injunction, Farnborough airport announced that it planned to double the number of weekend flights.
Why is all this happening? Because the UK, the US and many other nations have become closed shops run by the plutocrats’ trade union. It explains why, in the US, you can be imprisoned for possession of a few grams of narcotics, yet no pharmaceutical executive has been sent to jail for peddling opioids that have killed 800,000 people. It tells us why, in the UK, no company has yet been prosecuted for tax evasion under the 2017 Criminal Finances Act, and why Rishi Sunak’s government repeatedly sabotaged parliament’s attempts to clamp down on major white collar crime. The powerful are protected while the powerless are exposed to ever more inventive laws.
Inequality demands oppression. The more concentrated wealth and power become, the more those who challenge the rich and powerful must be hounded and crushed. In other words, economic inequality is mirrored by inequality before the law. You can dispense with all the other indices of democracy. The best measure of the health of a political system is who gets prosecuted.
What is so distressing about government oppression of protesters is that today many of them are trying to prevent the Earth slipping into a downward spiral which will make it no longer capable of supporting human life. Is this a sin that demands people be incarcerated and subjected to financial ruin? Apparently in the minds of many it most definitely is.
Last year, Adolf DeSantis, the Fuhrer of Florida, proposed a law that would make all bloggers register with the state. I am a blogger (of sorts) and I live in Florida. If I had the state looking over my shoulder to see if I was writing anything derogatory about Saint Ron, it’s fair to say that would have a marked chilling effect on what I write and what you get to read.
The United Sates and the world have been taken over by wealthy corporations with unlimited financial resources who have used their economic muscle to elect people and install judges who will do their bidding. A corporation by definition is a legal fiction, a privilege conferred by the people of a sovereign state of nation to promote commerce. But the notion of what a corporation can do metastasized when Chief Justice John Roberts of the US Supreme Court blithely commented that corporations are “people” within the purview of the US Constitution and entitled to “free speech” by spending as much money as they wanted to get people favorable to their point of view elected. Ever since then, the US has been on a downward slide toward tyranny.
For corporations, it has been a bonanza. Spend a hundred million to influence a few elections and some regulators and reap one hundred billion in profits. Who wouldn’t take that deal? Corporations exist only because of a social license granted by the citizenry. Perhaps it is time to rethink what corporations owe in return for their social licence to operate as quasi-persons with perpetual existence?
Helen Keller once observed, “The test of a democracy is not the magnificence of buildings or the speed of automobiles or the efficiency of air transportation, but rather the care given to the welfare of all the people.” By that measure, most governments today would get a failing grade.
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