June 13, 2021
Lawrence, US 69 F
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Paris Raite: Kansas bill seeks to criminalize environmentalists’ protests (Column)

Kansas Senate Bill 172 is a sneaky bill targeted toward peaceful protesting against “critical infrastructure facilities.” It creates four new criminal offenses over trespassing and damages, making a peaceful protester’s arrest a potential felony with up to four years in prison. 

This bill also creates one of the biggest threats to Kansans’ constitutional rights in the current legislative session. It adds excessive penalties for trespassing, while extending RICO statutes to organizations that support peaceful protests and movements. This means organizations such as my affiliation, Loud Light, could potentially be treated as organized crime, similar to a mafia, instead of the youth engaging organization it is. 

This bill pushes already existing consequences to the limit if the offenses are enacted on a “critical infrastructure facility,” which is broadly defined within. According to the legislation, a “critical infrastructure facility” includes mainly energy, gas, railroad and other manufacturer properties. The penalties for trespassing, vandalism or damages turn from misdemeanors to full-on felonies with years of impact. The bill redefines trespassing with the intent to “impede or inhibit operations of the facility” as “aggravated trespassing,” punished with a felony and potential prison time.

During a House judiciary committee hearing on the bill, Rep. Susan Humphries made the statement “I don’t know that the First Amendment gives us the right to trespass when we’re protesting.” Unfortunately, Humphries is failing to see the bigger picture at hand. There are already laws prohibiting trespassing, so why is it necessary to create more legislation and punishment for something already illegal?

In the same hearing, proponents of the legislation provided no examples of incidents of aggravated trespassing and damage to critical infrastructure facilities in Kansas. Instead, the only example provided originated in Florida, far from the Sunflower State. If the civil disobedience of trespassing is peaceful and nonviolent, and there are no incidents of such “aggravated trespassing” in Kansas, then why should we felonize peaceful protesters attempting to convey a message? 

As trespassing becomes overcriminalized in this bill, racketeering definitions are expanded broadly, defining “patterns of racketeering activity” as only two or more incidents of organizational support with similar interests. What is portrayed as a bill designed to protect facilities is actually legislation that could easily be manipulated to silence peaceful and nonviolent movements, organizations and protesters who take on energy corporations. 

A clear-cut example of the horrendous effects this bill could bring is within the nationwide climate movement. There are several large Kansas climate movements and organizations such as the Sierra Club, Sunrise Movement, Climate Action KC and more dedicated to responding to the climate threat locally. This is an ongoing fight, meaning it will take more than one or two peaceful protests and movements to create real change. 

However, life under SB 172 would define organizations that support two or more peaceful events that are related as “patterns of racketeering.” This leaves peaceful climate movements that are fighting for change vulnerable to charges and felonies. Not only would it put an entire organization at risk, but also the citizens who back them and participate. Instead of creating legislation on climate change, something that endangers constituents, this bill spends its time overcriminalizing peaceful civil disobedience seeking change. 

The bill does not increase protection against terrorism, violence, organized crime, or trespassing. These acts are already illegal with their own approved sentencing guidelines. Instead, this bill chips away at the Constitution and its First Amendment through a message of fear and punishment for those seeking to exercise peaceful civil disobedience and protest. 

A comment about the bill that particularly stands out to me comes from Sen. Mike Thompson, who claims that SB 172 protects activists “from their own ignorance.” As a young activist who has participated in peaceful protests on more than one occasion, it is appalling to see a member of the Legislature belittle what’s important to me as a citizen. Perhaps Thompson didn’t consider that young activists are anything but ignorant, and instead are fully aware of their rights, not only as Kansans but also as Americans. 

It is a shame to see peaceful protesting, something that brought this country civil rights and suffrage, be targeted and overcriminalized under the guise of “protection.” Peaceful civil disobedience gave us the Boston Tea Party, which led to the birth of this nation. It should be protected because it is a peaceful route to change and communication between constituents and their governments. 

Instead of strengthening Kansans’ constitutional rights, this bill erodes them, one definition at a time. 

— Paris Raite (she/her) is a student activist at the University of Kansas residing in Lawrence and a fellow for the nonprofit organization Loud Light. She loves music ranging from the Beatles to Britney (FREE BRITNEY), and she firmly believes in protesting and standing up for what’s right. She can be reached at paris.raite@gmail.com. 

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