Two environmental activists in Bloomington, Ind., have been charged with racketeering–charges originally intended to target the mob–for allegedly “conspiring” to engage in tree sits, participate in non-violent civil disobedience, and make an inflammatory blog post.
Hugh Farrell and Gina “Tiga” Wertz are organizers in the campaign to halt expansion of the I-69 NAFTA superhighway. They were arrested on Friday, April 24th, and they’re each facing five charges that carry a maximum of eight years in prison.
Four of the charges are misdemeanors for “intimidation” and “conversion” (treating someone else’s property as your own). All four misdemeanors are related to a civil disobedience stunt where some activists removed the furniture from an I-69 project office, occupied the space, and posted an eviction notice. The government says the civil disobedience stunt was intended to place Ronnie Wilson in fear, and subject him to “contempt or ridicule.”
The felony charge is for corrupt business influence, or racketeering. The government isn’t arguing that these activists were actually engaged in racketeering, but that they are part of Roadblock EarthFirst (described as a criminal enterprise) and “conspired” to do so. According to their arrest warrants, Farrell and Wertz:
- “Conspired” to remove office furniture from I-69 project offices as part of eviction notice stunts.
- “Conspired” to post an “internet blog on two publicly accessed website stating ‘you will suffer the consequences’ and ‘perhaps we’ll go to your homes, children’s daycare, churches or wherever else you happen to turn your back.” The blog posts were made after the violent removal of activists from a tree sit.
- “Conspired” to commit “theft” when six individuals blocked the entrance to Gohmann Asphalt and Construction Company using non-violent civil disobedience and caused a loss of profits.
- “Conspired” to commit “theft” by “taking unauthorized control of trees” and “depriving lawful owners of use and/or value of the said trees.” (Note: the last two bullets are only in Wertz’s arrest warrant.)
Racketeering laws are intended to combat organized crime, such as the mafia, and include crimes like extortion, bribery and money laundering. Although ambitious prosecutors have tried to use the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) to target anti-abortion activists, animal rights activists, and the Hells Angels, the purpose of the law has always been to go after illegal business activity.
But these activists, and others like them, are not protesting this superhighway to make money. They’re not doing it for personal gain. Halting this environmental destruction will not financially benefit them in any way.
Then why use mob laws against them? Because of their beliefs.
Tree sits, office takeovers and road blockades are against the law, and the government has the tools and resources to prosecute those crimes.
But because of the politics of the alleged crimes, prosecutors are reaching for more. Civil disobedience has become “theft.” Tree sits have become “unauthorized control of trees.” These trumped-up charges are a way to take what are, at the very worst, misdemeanor crimes and turn them into federal crimes. It’s an attack on individuals perceived as being leaders in the movement for the sole purpose of stamping out dissent.
A support website for Hugh Farrell and Gina “Tiga” Wertz has been set up at http://mostlyeverything.net.