A bill passed four years ago made it a felony in Wisconsin to trespass on land owned by energy providers.
Now, state lawmakers have introduced new legislation to expand on the bill from 2015. The new bill would expand the definition of energy provider to include companies that operate a delivery system for gas, oil, petroleum, renewable fuel, or chemical generation — or, simply put, a pipeline.
State Senator Van Wanggaard, one of the co-authors of the bill, says the legislation is about protecting utility workers and ensuring Wisconsinites’ access to public utilities like heat and electricity.
“A single person could create a problem that could disrupt energy services for hundreds of thousands of people and this is a danger to our economy and our safety,” Wanggaard says.
“We saw this happen earlier this in Madison with the MG&E fire that occurred, and I know the MG&E fire was an accident, but you can see the impact the accident caused. Now imagine the impact if that fire was intentional. The damage could have been far greater, and widespread.”
The bill also includes language exempting those who protest a labor dispute that the 2015 bill did not. Some supporters say this would protect the rights of non-violent protesters demonstrating on energy providers’ lands.
But detractors say that’s not the case. Patricia Hammel, a member of the Madison Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, says that the additional language wouldn’t protect indigenous people who are the most likely to protest pipelines passing through tribal lands.
“When you say that labor unions have the right to picket and organize, and that people have the right to exercise their First Amendment rights, you’re just re-stating something that already exists,” Hammel says.
“That’s not giving anyone any extra protection, and I can tell you [that] at these protests, when there are mass numbers of people like up at Standing Rock resisting a pipeline, the police will arrest 200 people and they’ll sort out later who had the intent to trespass and who is exercising protected First Amendment activity because police aren’t in the business of making those determinations, they just arrest everyone.”
According to a U.S. Department of Justice from last year, Wisconsin had the highest incarceration rate of Native Americans in the country in 2013.
Rather than stemming from a desire to protect workers, Bad River Tribe Chairman Mike Wiggins Junior says the bill is rooted in the fear of the loss of profit and caters to the status quo of the fossil fuel industry.
“Over and over we’ve seen peaceful non-violent protests met with militarization, threats of violence, and actual violence from some of these corporate mechanisms, and really this bill sends a message and sends a dagger into First Amendment rights and the whole notion of peaceful, non-violent gathering,” Wiggins says.
“It steals Wisconsinites’ voices, it steals the voice of Mound people within our ancestral homelands and tribal boundaries to stand up for our land and water. The language in the bill actually [is] I’d say a giveaway of Wisconsin land and the granting of special property rights that don’t even exist for local municipalities and tribes.”
Wiggins Junior and others also called upon Governor Tony Evers to veto this legislation should it pass.
But, the state Assembly approved a rule change earlier this month that would give the legislature unlimited attempts to override such a veto.
Chali Pittman contributed to this report.