Indigenous land and water protectors in Austin, Texas, briefly disrupted the state legislature on Tuesday when they unfurled two banners in the Texas State House of Representatives and shouted, “Kill the bill! Save the land!” The action was intended to stop the passage of House Bill 3557, which would increase the seriousness of violations that interfere with “critical infrastructure,” such as pipelines, by elevating them from misdemeanors to felonies.
Jennifer K. Falcon of the Society of Native Nations, who is running the campaign to stop the bill, explained the increased penalty would inhibit free speech and unfairly criminalize Indigenous people who are only trying to protect their land.
“We have been lobbying to stop this bill for quite a while, about six months now,” Falcon said. “Yesterday was the second reading of the bill and a lot of Democrats decided to vote for it. So we decided we would escalate and try to flip some of those Democrats and let them know how serious we were.”
How the confrontation transpired
As the state representatives began their second vote on the bill, the protectors unfurled two banners from the spectator’s balcony, one on either side of the House chamber. One read, “Kill the bill! Save the land!” And the other read, “Indigenous women won’t be silenced.”
The protectors included members of the Carrizo Camecrudo tribe of South Texas who, in addition to opposing the bill, is also fighting the construction of President Trump’s border wall in their homelands.
When the banners unfurled, the protectors began shouting “Kill the bill! Save the land!” and “Overcriminalization!” Members of the Texas Capitol Police immediately advanced on them. One grabbed the end of the “Kill the bill!” banner and bunched it up, making it unreadable. They then ordered the protectors out of the House chamber.
Approximately ten protectors were herded into a small area of the lobby and surrounded by officers. The officers told the protectors they were being detained and then confiscated their IDs. A female officer then went around and took the personal information of each protector.
One independent journalist, Lilith Sinclair, who was in the balcony with the protectors as an observer, was also caught up in the scoop. She was questioned and released.
After several tense minutes of being corralled in the lobby, a Texas Capitol Police sergeant made an announcement stating they were all being given a “criminal trespass warning” and told if they returned to the Capitol with “ill intent” they would be arrested and formally charged with criminal trespass. The officers then escorted them out of the building.
The story behind the passion
The anti-protest legislation in Texas is only the latest version of similar legislation appearing in many other states across the country. According to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, 35 states have considered a total of 98 anti-protest bills since 2016. Of those 98 bills, 14 have been enacted, 26 are pending and 58 have been defeated or expired.
All of the bills are variations of a model set of legislation written by a right-wing organization called the American Legislative Exchange Council. This organization is commonly referred to as a legislation factory or a “bill mill” that drafts conservative legislation and then courts state representatives to introduce them into their state’s legislature. Members of the council include representatives of many large corporations such as ExxonMobil, Pfizer and Koch Industries.
The protectors in Texas had seen how anti-protest legislation in Louisiana written by the right-wing group was used to charge water protectors from the Indigenous L’eau Est La Vie camp. The water protectors there are trying to halt construction of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline. On August 9, three water protectors from the camp were canoeing near the pipeline easement when they were arrested for unauthorized entry of a critical infrastructure facility.
Under the new anti-protest law passed a year ago under Louisiana House Bill 727, the violation was no longer a misdemeanor trespassing charge, but a felony with a more serious sentence and a resulting criminal record that will affect their future employment prospects.
To the protectors in Texas, the fight against HB 3557 on Tuesday was an attempt to quell this wave of anti-protest legislation being promoted across the country by big energy companies. They note how this wave began in response to the actions at Standing Rock by water protectors opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Caught between pipelines and the border wall
Juan Mancias, chairman of the Carrizo Camecrudo Tribe of South Texas, has been fighting against pipelines for years. The massive Rio Grande LNG plant being built near Brownsville at the mouth of the Rio Grande River will virtually destroy an ancient burial site called Garcia Pasture that’s sacred to his tribe.
The Texas pipeline company Kinder Morgan wants to build two natural gas pipelines from the Permian Basin in West Texas that will terminate in Brownsville: the Gulf Coast Express Pipeline and the Permian Highway Pipeline. In addition, the Jupiter pipeline will bring crude oil from the Permian Basin to the Port of Brownsville.
Because the Carrizo Camecrudo tribe is not federally recognized, the energy companies have no legal obligation to consult them regarding construction.
To add insult to injury, President Trump’s border wall requires no consultation with anyone and will bulldoze its way straight through sacred locations, archeological sites and cemeteries. The Department of Homeland Security has waived 28 federal laws to expedite construction of the wall, two of which are the American Indian Religious Freedom Act and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
This lack of consultation is what brought Juan Mancias to the Texas state legislature on Tuesday. He has established several camps near the Rio Grande River where he and other tribal members and allies monitor construction of the border wall. They’ve been there since January and vow to do whatever is necessary to stop the wall from destroying sacred locations. He came to the state Capitol to be heard.
“What we want to let them know is that if they’re going to exterminate us, we should have equal representation, because that’s what they’re doing. This is ethnic cleansing. They’re not listening to the Native tribes. We’re not getting consulted. None of the tribes are getting consulted,” he said.
The shouts in the Texas State House of Representatives chamber on Tuesday reflected the need of Native people in Texas to be heard, both by a federal government that ignores them and a state government that will severely punish them for speaking out.
Unfortunately for the protectors, the bill passed the House vote on Tuesday, and it looks as if the Senate version will also pass.
Frank Hopper is a Tlingit, Kagwaantaan, freelance writer, born in Juneau, Alaska, and raised in Seattle. He now resides in Washington, D.C.