As we reflect on Christ’s passion, a bill is quietly making its way through the Pennsylvania Legislature that deserves our attention. It threatens people of conscience who speak and act with courage. Senate Bill 323 is a dissent-suppression measure masquerading as a cost-management bill, and its co-sponsor is our own state Sen. Scott Martin (R-Martic Township).
It requires participants of any public demonstration, however peaceful, to reimburse police response costs if convictions result from the event. Martin justifies the measure by detailing the alleged costs incurred by the state of North Dakota during the #NoDAPL campaign, in which 300 Native American tribes resisted a Texas-based crude oil pipeline being run through tribal water supplies and historic treaty lands. Martin concludes that the cost of ensuring safety at demonstrations is too much for any state to shoulder. His plan is to shift the price of public protest back to those who’ve already paid for it once in taxes: the people.
We offer five observations on SB 323.
— The most striking thing about Martin’s bill is how thoroughly he dismisses the role of mass protest in American democracy. In his zeal to defend state and corporate interests, never does Martin ask whether indigenous protesters at Standing Rock had legitimate cause to protest in the first place. He never questions, for example, why that crude oil pipeline was forced through a Lakota community’s reservoir after it was denied passage through Bismarck’s water supply. Bismarck is 92% white.
Nor does he consider why North Dakota deployed the Army National Guard against unarmed Americans who were encamped on private land. Nor why the pipeline’s private security forces were coordinating the response of local and state police. Nor why peaceful indigenous elders were detained for days in dog cages. Nor why police used water cannons on unarmed protesters in subfreezing temperatures, sending hundreds to the hospital with hypothermia.
Martin suggests that democracy can’t afford such costly expressions of dissent. We suggest that democracy is bankrupt without it.
— SB 323 denounces the $38 million that the state of North Dakota allegedly spent on response costs at Standing Rock. Martin’s outrage would be better spent, however, on the $38 million spent right here by Pennsylvania’s pipeline lobby since 2012. That’s $38 million spent rigging the system in favor of a powerfully destructive industry against local communities. That’s $38 million spent pushing legislation like SB 323 to silence our dissent. And it’s precisely what makes protest a moral imperative today.
— When pressed, Martin insists SB 323 is “not intended” to punish the people of Lancaster Against Pipelines, the Adorers of the Blood of Christ, or other “good folks” who peacefully express their conscience. That flimsy assurance is flatly contradicted by the plain language of his own bill. In fact, SB 323 goes out of its way to target religiously motivated mass dissent, specifically listing “the holding of vigils and prayer services” among the kinds of demonstrations liable to financial ruin.
— Martin’s bill is not born of local concern. Rather, it’s part of an industry-backed, national campaign to stifle community protest across the nation. In the past two years alone, 10 states have adopted new measures hyper-criminalizing protest; 15 more have anti-protest bills pending approval. It’s no coincidence that all 25 of these states are soaked in gas-and-oil money, even as public opposition reaches a boiling point.
— While pipeline protests are clearly Martin’s chief target, SB 323 applies equally to every kind of public demonstration, however peaceful and orderly, that results even in misdemeanor charges: students marching for gun safety; rallies for health care or immigration reform; sit-ins to protect, or limit, abortion rights. SB 323 threatens to silence all of us. All of us should work to ensure its defeat.
Mark Clatterbuck, of Martic Township, is a founding member of the group Lancaster Against Pipelines.