W.Va. House Passes Bill That Would Make Civil Disobedience Near Infrastructure A Criminal Offense

Feb 13, 2020

Three days after a public hearing on the implications of a bill to protect critical infrastructure sites in West Virginia, the House of Delegates has passed House Bill 4615, which will create “a criminal offense of trespass upon property containing a critical infrastructure facility.” 

To Democrats who opposed the bill, this is an unfair restriction on their constituents’ right to protest on location, for things like natural energy sites. 

To Republicans who supported the legislation, the bill will keep the state’s most important power supplies safe from interference that might leave the state’s most vulnerable people without electricity.  

Del. Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, said he feared the bill will make a penalty out of the very civil disobedience he said the nation was founded on.  

“While it’s [civil disobedience] against the law, I don’t think we should be putting people in prison or even in regional jails for extended periods of time for standing up to something they believe in,” Pushkin said. “I think that’s what this bill really gets at. It’s going after organizations that seek to protect our air, our land, our property rights.” 

Pushkin referred to a letter Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote from a Birmingham jail on civil demonstrations, and the anniversary of activist icon Mother Jones’ arrest in Charleston 87 years ago on Thursday

Del. John Shott, R-Mercer, referenced another more recent event in 2013, where several armed attackers disabled 17 power transformers in Silicon Valley. 

“But the key is not the cost of those transformers. Property can be replaced,” Shott said. “It's the catastrophic effect, the cascading effect that it could’ve had on the people of Silicon Valley. Not just the Googles of the world, and their office operations, but the nursing homes, the hospitals, those places that depend on that power to operate, in many cases, to keep alive the people that need that.” 

The bill applies to assets and systems so vital that their incapacity or destruction “would have a debilitating impact” on state or national security and public health. Examples in the bill include refineries, power facilities, manufacturing plants, pipelines, water intake structures, dams and more. 

The bill was amended Wednesday to include military, restricted Division of Highway and health care facilities.  

During a public hearing on the bill Monday, attendees referred to labor-related strikes like the Blackjewel demonstrations in eastern Kentucky.  

Del. Mike Caputo, D-Marion, former District 31 vice president of the United Mine Workers of America, talked about participating in such protests and civil disobedience.  

“Hell, I have scars around my wrists, I had so many handcuffs on me at one time,” Caputo said. “But you know what? At the end of the day, we were on the side of the right. And those coal miners, and those widows who were promised lifetime healthcare, we won the day. Because we had to show the world in a very peaceful way, that we were being wronged. And I will not be ashamed of that, I will never be ashamed of being on the right of a nonviolent display of civil disobedience.”  

Shott pointed out the bill was also amended on Wednesday to exempt people picketing in bona fide labor disputes.  

Del. Patrick Martin, R-Lewis, said before the vote he felt the bill could be good for labor, a divisive viewpoint that’s come up in a variety of pipeline related coverage.  

“We had a pipeline up in our area, and I know that the pipelines have been brought up a lot in this bill,” Martin said. “I saw these people coming in, not only from out of state, but also working from our communities in this pipeline industry. They were there working, they brought their families here. They were trying to get a job done.” 

“If you're not for a pipeline, that's fine, but you should not be standing in another person's way of taking that person and their family, providing for their family, out, to go to work and make a living.” 

The bill passed by a vote of 60 to 35 with five people absent or not voting. It now moves on to the Senate. 

 Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.