My new article for VICE:
Two environmentalists in Oklahoma may be the first protesters prosecuted for a “terrorism hoax” after they unfurled a banner covered in glitter.
Last Friday in Oklahoma City, Stefan Warner and Moriah Stephenson walked through the front door of Devon Tower, the headquarters of Devon Energy. The energy giant has plans to increase fracking, and its CEO is on the board of TransCanada, the corporation behind the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. The activists walked to the second floor balcony of the atrium, and dropped a red Hunger Games-inspired banner. It said “The odds are never in our favor,” and featured a mockingjay carrying a monkeywrench.
As the banner unrolled, some glitter fell to the ground. The whole thing was pretty boring, as far as protests like this go, Warner says. Security guards asked them to leave, and they did; Warner had no desire to get arrested, plus Stephenson had to finish her grad-school homework.
“I could have swept it up in two minutes if they gave me a broom,” Warner says. As they were leaving, he apologized to the cleaning lady. She smiled at him and said it’s ok.
Police arrested two other protesters with Great Plains Tar Sands Resistance who had locked themselves in the building’s doorway. But what to do with the glitter-fabulous Warner and Stephenson?
More cop cars kept arriving, and they knew something was up. They were detained because the cops said they needed to investigate the substance. “And I’m like, ‘What do you mean? The glitter?” Warner says. “You think glitter is a hazardous substance? You’ve got to be kidding me.”
When they got to jail, they found out they were being charged with a “terrorism hoax,” a state felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
Their attorney, Doug Parr, has been involved in dozens of protest cases like this one in Oklahoma and Texas. In other arrests, protesters have faced trumped-up charges, but this is a radical escalation.
“I’ve been practicing law since the 1970s. Quite frankly, I’ve been expecting this,” Parr says. “Based upon the historical work I’ve been involved in, I know that when popular movements that confront the power structure start gaining traction, the government ups the tactics they employ in order to disrupt and take down those movements.”
TransCanada has been putting pressure on law enforcement to do exactly that. In documents obtained by Bold Nebraska, the company was shown briefing police and the FBI on how to prosecute anti-pipeline protesters as terrorists.
In Ohio, the Athens County Emergency Management Agency recently held a training drill that involved a fake anti-fracking group. The scenario was meant to prepare emergency first responders for a terrorist attack. Focusing the training on non-violent environmentalists caused such an uproar that the county had to issue a public apology.
Accusing non-violent protesters of “terrorism” in Oklahoma City may have a similar effect. The word has a visceral sting in this town, the site of the most destructive terrorist attack in U.S. history prior to 9/11. The bombing killed 168 people and injured more than 600.
Using that same language to describe environmentalists with a sparkly banner is only going to backfire, Warner says. It’s too soon to tell if these charges are going to stick. But either way, he says, “I don’t think the police realize they might be making us a lot of allies.”