The global plastics industry is booming, adding trash to our oceans and greenhouse gases to our atmosphere. Plastics production has grown even during the coronavirus recession because of the increased need for disposable gloves, cups, and bags.
The epicenter of the U.S. plastics industry is along the Gulf Coast. There, about 60 miles west of New Orleans, in St. James, Louisiana, a Taiwanese company called Formosa Plastics is proposing to build North America’s largest plastics plant on a former plantation site that includes an historic burial ground for slaves.
The mostly African-American community of St. James is fighting to stop the $9 billion dollar project, in part because of concerns that the plant’s air and water pollution would jeopardize their health.
Last week, a leader of those protests, Anne Rolfes, Founding Director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, and a colleague were arrested by police. Their crime? Six months earlier, as part of a day of activism to educate the public about the problem of plastic pollution, and bring the issue home, they placed a box of plastic waste -- tiny pellets discharged from a Formosa plastics factory in Texas – on the porch of a home owned by a plastics industry lobbyist.
“It’s an abuse of the law to claim that, by leaving a box of their own product on their own doorstep, we are somehow the bad guys,” Rolfes said. “It’s wrong.”
The police, working with the plastics lobbyist, did not charge the environmental activists with trespassing or some misdemeanor. They charged them with terrorism, a felony that carries a prison sentence of up to 15 years.
“Well, the word 'terrorism' has a shock value to it,” Rolfes said. “And so if their intent is to scare, harass, intimidate and silence you, what better way of doing that than by having the most intense sounding charge? And ‘terrorism’ sounds terrible. So does ‘felony.’ It’s a page from their playbook. They want us to be quiet and just let this big plastics plant go in…. I certainly am not intimidated into stopping what is my life’s work.”
The Baton Rouge Police Department did not respond to a request for more information or an interview on the case, and the lobbyist declined to be interviewed for this program. But according to a copy of the arrest warrant, the police claimed that the lobbyist could have been frightened or potentially terrorized by a note left atop the package that said the pellets should not be consumed by children or pets – and so therefore, were “hazardous.”
To attorney Hina Shamsi of the American Civil Liberties Union and others, the incident was part of a more ominous recent national pattern. Law enforcement and the Trump Administration are misusing the criminal justice system to intimidate protesters of all kinds, including those allied with Black Lives Matter.
“What we’re seeing at the national, state, and sometimes local level, is law enforcement and police using vague and overly-broad statutes, to essentially criminalize protest and dissent,” said Shamsi, Director of the ACLU’s National Security Project.
A research organization called the International Center for Not for Profit Law has tracked 15 states – mostly led by Republicans -- that have passed 24 new laws over the last four years imposing harsh penalties on protesters who block traffic, try to slow the construction of oil and gas pipelines, or even protest on public university campuses.
“Around the country, we’ve been seeing activists and demonstrators being targeted by the government,” said Nick Robinson, Legal Advisor at the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law. “There was this incident in Louisiana you’ve been talking about. There are several state anti-pipeline protest bills that are targeting pipeline protesters. And we saw of course the aggressive actions by law enforcement during the George Floyd demonstrations" about police brutality.
The bottom line: What’s really being manufactured here is not plastics. It’s an increasingly authoritarian system of government, captured and controlled by corporations, that is contaminating American democracy and threatening the health of our body politic.
Photo of Anne Rolfes, Founding Director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, from CSPAN.