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Ohio inches closer to passing authoritarian SB 250

SAUL KESTER // DECEMBER 14, 2018 

On Thursday, December 6th, the Republican-led Ohio State Senate, in a 23-5 vote, passed SB 250, an authoritarian, malicious, and all-around terrifying piece of neo-fascist legislation. SB 250, which will make it way to the Republican-led Ohio House of Representatives in the near future, raises the penalty of specific protest activity from a misdemeanor to a third-degree felony.

Officially titled the ‘Protect Critical Infrastructure Facilities from Mischief” act, SB 250 only thinly veils its anti-democratic intent. The ‘critical infrastructure’ it intends to protect is not critical. SB 250 specifically shields pipelines and ICE facilities from protest. The ‘mischief’ SB 250 seeks to criminalize is the most righteous type of mischief. Civil disobedience should not be punished with felonies, and efforts to inflict this type of punishment exist only to frighten potential activists. SB 250 aims to scare us off from doing what is right. We, as college students and concerned community members, must not give into these attacks

A few hours before SB 250 made its first step in becoming Ohio law, Student For Energy Justice (SEJ) held a ‘Community Gathering against SB250’. At one point during the event, a leader of SEJ asked if anybody in the audience had any questions about the bill. One student asked something that I assume a lot of people may be wondering to themselves right about now: “isn’t protest protected by the First Amendment? Isn’t SB 250 unconstitutional?”

 

I understand that instinct, the one that assumes that nothing so chillingly anti-democratic can happen here. SB 250 is the type of legislation that isn’t supposed to happen in the supposed democracy that is the U.S., a land supposedly protected by the Constitution, the courts, and the ACLU. I wish that were true, but it isn’t. Ohio is no democracy.

In 2017, Oklahoma passed two anti-protest bills that came to serve as the template for SB 250. Other forms of anti-protest bills have become law in states such as North Dakota, South Dakota, and Tennessee. Efforts to criminalize protest have become commonplace in states with Republican-led legislatures. North Carolina, for instance, has similar legislation currently being considered in their Republican-led state Congress.

SB 250 originated from a group known as ALEC, or the American Legislative Exchange Committee. ALEC is a group that drafts model legislation for Conservative state Congresses to pass. It does so by connecting these Conservative state legislators with capitalists and other corporate leaders. ALEC’s own template ‘Critical Infrastructure Protection Act,’ according to their website, takes direct influence from the 2017 legislation passed in Oklahoma. While SB 250 is significantly more detailed than ALEC’s template bill, SB 250 undeniable originated from ALEC’s corporate connections: SB 250 and ALEC’s model legislation define ‘critical infrastructure’ in the exact same language (although SB 250 expands upon ALEC’s original list of sites). Sen. Frank Hoagland, the chief proponent of SB 250, is a member of ALEC.

 

SB 250 was written by corporations. Make no mistake, this originates from the oil and natural gas industry, who aim to limit freespeech. They want to prevent us from organizing. These corporations want nothing more than to prevent a repeat of the protests that rocked the Dakota Access Pipeline back in 2016. They know how effective these protests can be; they aim to seize the power to prevent them from occurring again.

 

Soon this bill will make its way to the Ohio Statehouse, where the Republicans currently hold a supermajority. According to Cleveland.com, the Republicans “scored their wins for 63 percent of the seats while collecting just over 50 percent of the total vote,” due to gerrymandering and other forms of voter suppression. When this bill goes to the house - and it inevitably will - it is only natural to expect that the votes will go down as they did in the Ohio Senate: down party lines. 5 out of the 6 Democrats in the Ohio Senate present for the vote opposed the bill, with one Democrat joining the Republican delegation in supporting the bill. That Democrat was Sandra R. Williams, who represents Ohio Senate district 21. 

There are things that we must do to prevent SB 250. There’s so many groups, both in Oberlin College and outside of it, doing what they can to stop this bill. Elaine Tanner, a leader in Friends for Energy Justice (FFEJ), is one example of this. FFEJ is a community group engaged with environmental organizing, and one of the groups represented at SEJ’s ‘Community Gathering.’ Formed in 2002, the organization arose after Elaine noticed how coal pollution was harming the water quality in Ashland county, where Elaine lives. “[The corporations responsible] weren’t telling people what was happening,” Elaine says. Elaine sees a similar phenomenon happening now with SB 250. “We have to let people know what’s going on,” she says.

 

If you’re as concerned with the bill as I am, there’s a few ways you have to engage with it. Elaine mentions that as constituents of Ohio, we can make ‘public comments’ to the Ohio Congress.

 

There’s also the tried and true tactic of occupation, of physical protest. Many of us will be gone soon, with the semester nearing an end, but many of us will still be here on campus in the coming months. Winter term in Oberlin is often as isolating experience, one with ample free time and little to do with it. I can’t promise anything will happen, but I can offer myself as a resource. If you’re interesting in going to Columbus to protest SB 250, contact me at skester@oberlin.edu.

 

I recently saw where the Nexus pipeline was buried for the first time. The pipeline - placed in the ground against the wishes of the Oberlin local government, in opposition to the city of Oberlin’s Community Bill of Rights - pumps away day and night, its blastzone encompassing the homes of many local families. The damage is happening right here in our community. SB 250, by limiting our choices of engagement, will only cause Oberlin more harm. We must do what we can to stop it.