Anti-protest energy bill stalls in Senate

Environmentalists cheer victory over measure that would have turned protest offenses into felonies

Protesters march against the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016 at Chicago’s Federal Plaza. (Flickr/Bob Simpson)

Protesters march against the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016 at Chicago’s Federal Plaza. (Flickr/Bob Simpson)

By Ted Cox

Environmentalists are cheering a victory over a bill that would have subjected energy protesters to being charged with felonies.

The measure, House Bill 1633, cleared the House of Representatives by a vote of 77-28, over the opposition of the Progressive Caucus, but it was tabled Wednesday in the Senate by sponsor Sen. Michael Hastings of Tinley Park.

Hastings told Rich Miler’s Capitol Fax that he blamed the defeat on “the limited amount of time left in the legislative session” before Friday to make final amendments he wanted to introduce, but he said he’d continue on and “bring all interested parties together over the summer.”

Environmentalists declared victory and vowed to fight on against a bill they blamed on the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council. Greenpeace USA Executive Director Annie Leonard issued a statement calling the bill “a completely unnecessary attempt by the fossil-fuel industry and secretive groups like ALEC to divide the progressive movement at the exact moment when we most need to mobilize quickly toward real solutions to climate change.”

Rep. Will Guzzardi of Chicago applauded the halt as well. “I'm grateful that Sen. Hastings tabled this misguided bill,” he said. “The Progressive Caucus was proud to join with environmental groups, social-justice groups, and many others in opposing the measure. Koch brothers bills to criminalize protest have no place in the Illinois legislature.”

The original bill “creates the offense of criminal damage to a critical infrastructure facility for a person who knowingly damages, destroys, vandalizes, defaces, or tampers with equipment in a critical infrastructure facility,” and expands the definition of such a facility from nuclear plants to “coal mines and any mining operation,” among other loosely defined areas. Violations were to be considered a felony punishable by a $100,000 fine, imprisonment, or both. The original bill also would have held organizations responsible for the actions of their members or associated protesters, with the possibility they could be charged with conspiracy. Some of those provisions were amended in the House version, but Hastings didn’t feel he had the time to rectify language he thought essential ahead of Friday’s midnight deadline to end the current legislative session in the General Assembly.

According to Leonard, more than 50 civil-rights organizations, labor unions, and grassroots groups worked together to defeat this bill, and about 6,000 witness slips were submitted opposing the bill, “compared to a paltry 215 by the bill’s proponents.”

Tabitha Tripp of Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing Our Environment cheered the victory, saying, “We must remain vigilant in protecting the First Amendment and our right to a healthy environment. We have a duty to our children to protect both.” Yet she also warned, “It’ll be back, stay vigilant.”

Leonard credited Hastings, saying he “did the right thing by tabling HB1633, not just for the state, but as an example that shows that we the people need a healthy democracy to protect our planet.”

Jack Darin, director of the Sierra Club Illinois Chapter, had lobbied against the bill, saying, “The possibility that people are going to go to prison for being on the wrong side of the property line” would create “a chilling effect on free speech, on peaceful protest.”

Elizabeth Kosuth, a Bloomington resident and member of Illinois People’s Action, said the bill was misnamed in an attempt to slip it through the General Assembly. “This bill is called the Critical Infrastructure Bill,” she said. “But it really should be called the Protect Big Energy From the People Bill.”

She added Friday, “This bill was nothing more than an attempt by big energy corporations and their ally ALEC to change Illinois law to intimidate us in exercising our right to protest. And we just didn’t stand for it.”

Opponents emphasized that the bill created no new crimes, but stiffened penalties and fines in what they called an attempt to stifle free speech and the right to protest.

“At a time when many people, including lawmakers, have recognized the deleterious effects that mass incarceration has had on society and have attempted to rectify laws that have criminalized certain conduct or imposed unreasonable penalties, HB1633 would have been a giant step backwards,” said Kylah Johnston of The People’s Lobby. “By creating a whole new class of nonviolent offenders who could serve serious prison time, it was antithetical to criminal-justice reform.”