Early in the morning on September 12, twenty-two Greenpeace activists created a blockade by hanging from bungee cords off the Fred Hartman Bridge in Houston, Texas. Eleven activists suspended themselves from the bridge blocking the passage of boat traffic in protest of the fossil fuel industry. Greenpeace USA, a non-governmental environmental organization, tweeted “We're in Houston shutting down the largest oil export channel in the country to resist Trump & the oil industry for fueling this."
Hillsborough county Sheriff Ed Gonzalez tweeted, “I’m at the Fred Hartman bridge. Two northbound lanes on the bridge are shutdown. Traffic is moving slowly, best to find alternate routes. Also, no water vessels are allowed in the area. Our priority is the safety of everyone. We will provide updates as they become available.”
The Galveston County Sheriff's Office told KHOU11 that while the activists won't be forced to leave, when they do they will face multiple charges including obstructing the roadway and obstructing the waterway. The sheriff's office is also checking with the U.S. Attorney General on other possible charges.
The demonstration came hours before the third Democratic 2020 presidential primary debate Thursday night at Texas Southern University. "We challenge every candidate on stage tonight to promise to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable if they become president," Greenpeace wrote in a tweet, adding the hashtag "PeopleVsOil."
Environmental activism has long put protesters at odds with government officials. Recently, government officials have begun to label climate-conscious demonstrators with stronger labels — including “terrorist.” Last year, former US Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke blamed the deadly wildfires in the western U.S. on “environmental terrorists.” “We have been held hostage by these environmental terrorist groups that have not allowed public access — that have refused to allow [the] harvest of timber,” Zinke told Breitbart.
At the recent United Nations climate talks in Poland, more than two dozen climate activists headed to the summit in Katowice and were deported or refused entry on the pretext of being national threats. “I had absolutely no time to react,” said Zanna Vanrenterghem, a staff member at Climate Action Network Europe who was pulled off a train from Vienna to Katowice by border patrol agents. “The fact that this happened to 15 other people for similar reasons is very frightening. This is just a very small symptom of a larger disease.”
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, industry groups seized on the opportunity to push legislation, and federal law enforcement ramped up pursuit of radical activists in the name of counterterrorism. Back in 2005, in a senate committee meeting on environment and public works, a group of senators labelled activist groups the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and Animal Liberation Front (ALF) as terrorists groups saying their tactics “particularly the widespread use of arson, makes ELF and ALF the No. 1 domestic terror concern over the likes of white supremacists, militias, and anti-abortion groups.”
The label of “terrorism” has been contested and politicized. Advocates for human rights say that the term has been used to suppress criticism of the government or corporate interests.
“The fact that corporations are trying to frame environmental advocates in that way, it’s just a very clear example of how they’re trying to stigmatize it without addressing the concerns of the movement which are very legitimate,” said Rodrigo Estrada, senior communications specialist at Greenpeace. “In the end, this is about the protection of communities and the environment.”