ALEC-Crafted Laws Could Send Me to Prison for a Decade for My Activism

This week, corporate executives and legislators from around the country are gathering in Scottsdale, Arizona, for the American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC) annual States and Nation Policy Summit, where they will craft policies to introduce into state legislatures. More than a dozen groups have protested outside the meeting. ALEC is a shadowy group — meeting in secret, hiding its membership, and prohibiting journalists and the public from observing its activities. Various watchdogs have increasingly exposed ALEC’s undemocratic nature. What has received less attention, however, are the policies that emerge from ALEC.

ALEC is behind some of the most notorious and harmful state laws enacted in recent years, including Stand Your Ground laws; voter ID laws; laws that punish participation in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement for Palestinian rights; and laws that punish protests. I’m currently being prosecuted for allegedly violating the latter.

I am Sicangu Lakota from Rosebud, South Dakota. I moved to Louisiana in 2010, just before the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. I traveled to North Dakota in 2016 soon after pipeline security forces unleashed guard dogs on the peaceful Water Protectors at Standing Rock who were trying to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) from desecrating burial sites. The #NoDAPL protests lit fire to a worldwide movement against the oil industry and for the protection of water, human rights and communities affected by extractive industries. In response, several states enacted laws that impose severe criminal penalties for presence on property containing certain energy-related industrial manufacturing facilities classified as “critical infrastructure.”

When I returned to Louisiana, the anti-pipeline struggle followed me home. The Bayou Bridge Pipeline (BBP) is the tail end of the DAPL. It runs across 163 miles, from Lake Charles in southwest Louisiana, through the most beautiful bayous of the Atchafalaya Basin, ending in the historic African American freed slave community of St. James in “Cancer Alley” or “Death Alley.” The BBP threatens the water and lifeways of over 300,000 human beings in south Louisiana. Like DAPL, BBP was met with a historic Indigenous women-led resistance. Like #NoDAPL, the effectiveness of the #NoBBP effort was met with an ALEC-linked amendment to Louisiana’s “critical infrastructure” law which harshly punishes presence on or even near Louisiana pipelines. With over 125,000 miles of pipelines crisscrossing the state, the overwhelming majority are not visible and run through yards, public roads, sidewalks and other public spaces.

In September 2018, I was targeted, arrested without a warrant, detained and charged with two felonies under the law for attending a nonviolent protest to stop illegal construction on private property in the Atchafalaya Basin. I had permission from the landowner to be on the land, and a Louisiana court later found that the pipeline was being constructed illegally there. Still, I face up to 10 years in prison for my protest.

Laws that are so vague and sweeping in scope, and which provide harsh penalties, clearly implicate everyone’s First Amendment rights to organize and speak out. But critical infrastructure laws, like all laws born out of the conservative-corporate alliance in ALEC, have particularly harsh effects on communities of color.

Extractive and ecologically destructive industries tend to take from and pollute the most marginalized communities, as in the case of the chemical plants that have turned St. James into “Death Alley,” our G’witchen relatives from Alaska who are still recovering from the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989, and communities along the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline that recently leaked more than 380,000 gallons of crude oil and affected 10 times the amount of land initially determined.

When our communities fight back, we are the ones prosecuted under these ALEC-crafted laws. When our resistance is burdened by arrest and prosecution, it is our communities who are most vulnerable to the consequences of losing the fight — people of color, Indigenous people, and poor people are those first impacted by these industries and their contribution to climate change.

ALEC boasts that nearly a third of all state legislators are members, along with hundreds of local politicians. Every year, hundreds of ALEC-crafted bills are introduced, and many become law. A new report by the Center for Constitutional Rights, Dream Defenders, US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, Palestine Legal, and The Red Nation details the disparate impact these laws have on communities of color.

I continue to fight on the front line and have joined others to challenge the law in the courts. I’m working feverishly to ensure my children will be cared for in the event I’m convicted for standing up for their right to clean water and the rights of our beloved Unći Maka, our Mother Earth. Regardless of the outcome of my case, for economic, ecological and racial justice — ALEC must be stopped.