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Greens vs. the FBI

The “green scare” is in full swing, with COINTELPRO-style targeting of environmental and animal rights activists. The green scare, according to the Center for Constitutional Rights, is “the repression of environmental activists by designating them as terrorists.”

The challenge for activists is to peacefully protest and avoid criminalization of their dissent. Nowhere is that situation more evident than in the case of two I-69 protestors, Hugh Farrell and Gina “Tiga” Wertz. After a nonviolent protest 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.

“Now that we’re done with the case, we’re trying to figure out the repression that was used against us.”

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 2010 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.

Mary Sackley is another local activist; she is one of 16 citizens who protested an asphalt company’s participation in construction of the new-terrain highway with two lockdowns in 2008 at the asphalt company’s headquarters.

Here Farrell and Sackley talk about what their lives are like today, two years after the protests.

LG: Hugh, how has your life changed since your case ended?

HF: I’m still under judicial control, which means that for another year and a half I’ll have probation restrictions, which means I can’t be arrested and am subject to additional surveillance.

LG: What happens if you’re arrested?

HF: I have a two-year sentence, so if I get arrested, that immediately becomes unsuspended, and I’d do two years [of prison time] automatically.

Now that we’re done with the case, we’re trying to figure out the repression that was used against us. It was hardly against just Tiga [Wertz] and me; it was also against a number of other people in the movement against [the] I-69 [highway], and that’s part of the national momentum targeting ecoactivists. A lot of people in Bloomington are trying now to get organized to support other people who have been in prison and facing repression and try to fight back. One specific situation is the civil suit, in which 16 people are facing legal harassment and what’s called a SLAPP suit [Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation] by Gohmann Asphalt for impinging on I-69 profits.

MS: I can give a brief update on the civil suit. Basically it’s kind of a long waiting game where Gohmann Asphalt can wait us out until our energy wears out. They have endless money. Gohmann recently won a $7 million contract for the construction of I-69 through Pike County and through the Patoka National Wildlife Refuge, so they continue to be raking in the dollars. And still suing us for what could end up being over $100,000. The most recent update is that in December I filed an anti-SLAPP motion, which is a motion within the lawsuit to basically prove that this lawsuit is a SLAPP suit under Indiana statutes. And we’re very fortunate that Indiana has those statutes because a lot of states don’t have these statutes, so it would be a lot harder to defend ourselves.

LG: Mary, what was your role in all this?

MS: I was present at both lockdowns at Gohmann Asphalt. I was arrested at the second lockdown. I was the police liaison at both protests. I was specifically targeted because I was providing communication in between the protestors and the police. I was actually talking to the police and the prosecutor of Gibson County, and I was seeking to say, “Okay, what do you want us to do? Here’s what people are willing to do,” and letting the police know about various medical conditions. They used pressure points and compliance holds.

LG: What’s happening right now, besides what you said?

HF: On a related note, a long-term organizer and well-known community environmental activist here, Marie Mason, was arrested in 2008. We have to understand that her arrest was not only a response to her long history of resistance to environmental destruction across the Midwest, but an attack on the movement against I-69, which she participated in for 10 years, at a time when the state was gearing up to begin construction on the highway. She was arrested at the school where she worked in 2008. Many people in Bloomington are getting better organized to try to support her through her 22-year prison sentence.

LG: She’s in solitary confinement, isn’t she?

HF: She’s in a “secure housing unit,” which is an extremely repressive prison regime specifically meant to isolate and target political prisoners and prisoners who have been active in resistance of all kinds. It’s also racist, frequently used to lock Muslim prisoners regardless of their charges. We’re trying to get together support for her and make sure people know about her role in 20 years of environmental organizing and labor struggles and other projects.

LG: What does support consist of?

HF: Making sure that on her birthday (Jan. 26) and every other day she gets letters of support because she has very little contact with the outside world otherwise and making sure she’s supported and that she’s able to stay in touch with people and not only with people who are her good friends. What she wants is wider contact with other people who care about the world, not just her good friends. Making sure she’s not isolated and trying to refuse the State’s effort to isolate prisoners and better control them that way and scare the rest of us.

I think public displays and shows of support for her are really important. Showing support for Marie is also a way of taking a public position on environmental destruction and against the kind of interests that railroaded her and made sure that she’d receive five times the normal sentence that an arsonist would get. Linking together support for her as well as opposition to ongoing environmental degradation and also against repression by the prison system against political prisoners and all communities that are targeted by the prison system.

LG: What have you done that’s public to support her?

MS: There was recently a speaking event at Boxcar Books. That was pretty well attended. Some folks from Cincinnati and her support crew there came to speak.

HF: I feel really good about that. I felt that what we need to start doing is having a dialogue, an open conversation, and a place like Bloomington, even though it’s a small town, can often feel very isolating to people; there’s been a lot of fear because of what happened to her.

LG: Have you had any problems with FBI informants?

HF: The assumption now is that the government should have the prerogative to insert infiltrators and every sort of watching eye in any group of people involved in social struggles, and it’s incredible what kind of extensive network they’ve built for surveillance (not just human infiltrators, either; Facebook has been cited extensively in several recent cases), but at the same time it’s important not to be intimidated by that.

What they want is to spread paranoia and fear and prevent communication between people. They have such an extensive operation of surveillance of infiltration of repression, so the challenge is to avoid responding the way they us to, which would be shutting down.

LG: Do you assume that nobody is an informant, or are you just really careful?

HF: I think the opposite. My goal always is to try to relate to people and try to develop relationships of affinity and friendship and mutual understanding. The exciting thing about encountering people you don’t know is that they are different from you, that they’re coming from a different place and thus it’s impossible to “be really careful” with them.

If we work to develop the most intense connections possible, connections where we can begin to strategize and talk about the worlds we want to live in, and how to concretely reach them — It’s very difficult to fake that. Those are the kinds of connections that are important for resisting both infiltration but also paranoia and isolation.

LG: What are you doing now? Are you doing any activism besides Marie’s support network?

HF: Reading a lot, working on a community garden project, which, hopefully, will be part of a wider network of community gardens.

LG: Mary, do you have anything to add at this point?

MS: I look forward to people in Bloomington continuing to keep their eyes open to the repression in this state, both that which is faced by people resisting I-69 and others. To continue to think about the repression in the state of Indiana and to continue to think about how that what we face as political activists isn’t unique, and it’s very much as the system operates.

LINDA GREENE can be reached at lgreene@bloomington.in.us.

***

Marie Mason can be reached at: Marie Mason #04672-061,, FMC Carswell, Federal Medical Center, P.O. Box 27137, Fort Worth, TX 76127.

 

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