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I-69 charges resolved, SLAPP suits remain
Wednesday, 25 August 2010 04:39
by Linda Greene

According to the Center for Constitutional Rights, a public-interest, human-rights law firm, "The Obama administration has ... continued and enhanced the use of 'terrorism' prosecutions against animal rights and environmental activists, indicating that the 'Green Scare' - the repression of environmental activists by designating them terrorists - continues in full swing."

In Indiana the Green Scare has been in full swing with two legal cases associated with construction of the I-69 interstate extension. Criminal charges brought against two activists have been settled, but Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) lawsuits intended to chill political activism continue against 16 others.

On April 24, 2009, in a clear case of criminalizing dissent, the State charged two activists, Hugh Farrell and Gina "Tiga" Wertz, with criminal activity for peacefully protesting construction of I-69.
"In early March the case was resolved favorably for the defendants: the judge dismissed the felony racketeering charge."

Wertz was charged with intimidation, a class A misdemeanor, two counts; conversion (unauthorized use of someone else's property), a class A misdemeanor, two counts; and corrupt business influence (racketeering), a class C felony. Her bond was set at $10,000.

Farrell was charged with two counts of intimidation, two counts of conversion and corrupt business influence plus felony racketeering; his bond was set at $20,000.

All four misdemeanors are related to an alleged nonviolent action on July 9, 2007, in which activists removed the furniture from offices of two private, for-profit companies that had contracts with the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) to work on I-69. They posted eviction notices on the doors to protest the eviction of property owners and confiscation of land and homes in the highway's path.

In early March the case was resolved favorably for the defendants: the judge dismissed the felony racketeering charge. That left the four misdemeanors, which carried a maximum prison sentence of four years. In the end, the defendants' attorneys worked out a plea bargain consisting of unsupervised probation for two years.

"The prosecutor and state police had an extremely weak case," Farrell said. The state used Farrell and Wertz as scapegoats to attempt to intimidate other I-69 protestors, he added. The State wanted the two activists to do some prison time to set an example for other I-69 protestors.

The bad news is that 16 other I-69 protestors still face the SLAPP suits, the goal of which is to censor, intimidate and silence activists by burdening them with the cost and inconvenience of a legal defense until they abandon their opposition.

The lawsuit stems from two alleged nonviolent protests against I-69.

"The defendants' attorneys worked out a plea bargain consisting of unsupervised probation for two years."

On July 25, 2008, 16 people allegedly blocked the entrance to the Gohmann Asphalt Co. in Haubstadt, Gibson County, Ind. The company provided asphalt for the road project and had the construction contract for the first 1.7 miles of the highway.

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One person was arrested and charged with criminal trespass. The other 15 are alleged to have been present.

On July 14 of the same year, several of 15 activists were arrested for allegedly locking themselves to each other and to a truck owned by the Riverton Trucking Co., also in Gibson County. Not all participated in the lockdown. Gohmann contracts with Riverton. The plaintiffs are Gohmann and Riverton.

The 16 activists were all charged with criminal trespassing and many of them with criminal conversion and resisting arrest. Fourteen took a guilty plea for criminal trespassing, a misdemeanor, and two pled to an infraction of disregarding a police order.

All the criminal cases have been resolved.

Right before the statute of limitations ran out, on July 14, 2010, the prosecutor added five people to the lawsuit, for a total of 21. Those five didn't take part in the alleged actions, weren't arrested or associated in any way with I-69 protests and weren't charged with any crimes. The addition of those five names required the original 16 defendants to refile motions and start the whole legal process again.

The SLAPP suit, a civil lawsuit, alleges that Gohmann and Riverton lost $32,000 in profits from the protests. In a civil suit the law allows plaintiffs to sue for three times the alleged damages. Thus, the plaintiffs are suing for $96,000 in damages plus attorneys' fees.

The trial date hasn't been set yet.

Mary Sackley is one of the original 16 activists. At the time of the alleged actions, the State was beginning to construct the first phase of the highway extension, which is to connect Mexico, the United States and Canada, join Evansville and Indianapolis, and traverse Monroe County.

"Though opposition to I-69 has been fierce for over two decades, there's been a nearly total media blackout of the opposition for at least 10 years."

Sackley said a main goal of the actions was to draw media attention to the highway project, which Hoosiers have been fighting for over 20 years. However, in the mainstream, corporation-owned media, the actions were barely mentioned, and when they were, the media described the protestors as "tree huggers" and out-of-state "hippies" and didn't cover the substance of the issue.

The activists had gone door to door informing people living along the route that if the highway was built, they would lose their homes and at least some of their land. Moreover, the highway would bisect some farms, and farmers would have to drive miles in their tractors to reach the other side of their land.

Sackley said that many of those citizens told her they'd sent letters opposing the highway to their area newspapers, but none was published. Though opposition to I-69 has been fierce for over two decades, there's been a nearly total media blackout of the opposition for at least 10 years, Sackley said.

In contrast, I-69 proponents have received a lot of press coverage. Voices for I-69, a prohighway lobbying organization composed of presidents of chambers of commerce and other business people who argue I-69 will bring economic benefits to southwestern Indiana, have received publicity apparently whenever they requested it, according to Sackley.

The media have ignored not only individuals protesting the highway but also organizations, including Citizens for Appropriate Rural Roads (CARR) and the Hoosier Environmental Council.

As Sackley put it, "In terms of the spirit of public debate being shut down, it's really clear what the media's role in that is."

The SLAPP suit, Sackley said, is intended to "chill free speech" and intimidate people so they won't speak out about or fight the highway. The suit, she said, is "about making sure that people who are actively agitating against the road and really trying to fight it are shut up and scared out of doing it."

A restraining order prevents the activists from going within 500 feet of any Gohmann employee. If they accidentally walk by a site of Gohmann's operations, they can be arrested and charged with a felony for violating a restraining order. It's pure intimidation, Sackley said.

The lawsuit and restraining order are evidence of companies working in tandem with the State of Indiana and state police to squelch opposition to the road, Sackley asserted.

Harassment has become familiar to Sackley, who was followed by a man in an unmarked truck one day in Evansville, making intimidating comments. Three days in a row the police stopped her for alleged minor traffic violations, and they stopped other activists four or five times each.

Sackley contrasted her position on I-69 with that of CARR, which has opposed the highway for over 20 years. Though Sackley said she greatly appreciates CARR's resilence in maintaining opposition to the road for so many years and the organization's consistently connecting the road with free trade and NAFTA, the unstated reason for building the road, she doesn't advocate the alternate route, State Road 41 and I-70, that CARR does.

According to Sackley, I-69 won't bring much-needed jobs to southwestern Indiana, as the highway's advocates claim. At most, she said, we can expect a few new motels, gas stations and truck stops -- bringing low-wage, dead-end jobs in the service sector of the economy.
"Sackley believes discussions of I-69 need to start with the highway's relationship to capitalism and free trade and the cultural and lifestyle changes mandated to transition to new modes of transportation."
Sackley thinks in entirely different terms. Discussing routes, she believes, avoids discussing the people losing their homes and land to I-69, not to mention the environmental destruction: the highway will eliminate forests and farmland and bisect the Patoka National Wildlife Refuge.

According to Sackley, we should be activating the cultural and lifestyle changes needed for new modes of transportation without fossil fuels in this age of global warming. We need, she said, to restrict truck-based trade and to create local economies that can become interdependent with other ones so goods don't have to be transported from distant places.

Sackley believes discussions of I-69 need to start with the highway's relationship to capitalism and free trade and the cultural and lifestyle changes mandated to transition to new modes of transportation. "The sooner we change our culture and lifestyles, the better off we'll be," she asserted.

The current situation, she said, isn't sustainable. The infrastructure is set up for dependence on private forms of transportation, and that must change.

Sackley said though the lawsuit has definitely had a "chilling" effect on her resistance to the road, she's received lots of support. She says it's obvious what a "ridiculous project" the road is, requiring "all this repression and intimidation to push it through.

Linda Greene can be reached at lgreene@bloomington.in.us.

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