Ohio is home to some of the nation’s most natural lands, with acres of beautiful forests, countless national parks and glistening water systems. It is a well sought after spot for a natural getaway. On the other hand, it is also a well sought after spot for industry that has placed the state as the 5th leading producer of natural gas.

Organizations and activist leaders for years have surrounded Ohio’s natural lands and vulnerable communities pushing back against industrial encroachment and expansion. Among these leaders is longtime Ohio resident, Randy Cunningham. Randy has dedicated his life to environmental activism to fight for and defend the public health rights of his community in Ohio, as well as, a handful of communities in varying locations around the country and even the world.

IMG_0233Cunningham got his start in environmental activism at a young age from a fight to defend his family’s land in Missouri from the expansion of the I-95 interstate. From that battle forward, Randy never looked back and dedicated his life to speaking out against environmental and human rights injustices. He has spent the majority of his life involved in a wide variety of campaigns, including landfill and incinerator use, the ban of plastic bags, and available housing. As a part of his lifelong achievements, Randy points to the publishing of his book, Democratizing Cleveland: The Rise and Fall of Community Organizing in Cleveland, Ohio 1975-1985. The book, released in 2007, is a compilation of nearly 15 years worth of interviews from local activists in Cleveland, Ohio. The motivation behind the book was to highlight the portions of activism that the public doesn’t normally get to see or pay attention to. 

“Everyone wants to be on camera and no one wants to give credit to the people doing the groundwork. They are the important people.”

Cunningham explains that his writing is a large part of his activism efforts. “E.P. Thompson (a British historian and writer) once said that you cannot make history and write about it at the same time. Well, I try to do both.”

In between writing and working with numerous organizations, Randy is currently participating in the movement to block Ohio Senate Bill 33, (Modify Criminal and Civil Law for Critical Infrastructure Damage) also known as, the anti-protest bill. The state legislature has introduced the bill as a means to protect “critical infrastructure” and individuals from damage and danger resulting from operational interference. The bill has defined  “critical infrastructure” as a facility that is enclosed with a fence or physical barrier and includes petroleum refineries, natural gas processing plants and interstate pipelines. In total, the proposed bill has listed 73 different types of industrial structures as “critical infrastructure.” 

Ohio SB 33 is not the first bill in the country to propose anti-protest legislation. In response to the Standing Rock protests that impeded the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016, 18 states have to varying degrees introduced or passed a bill limiting the protest of pipeline construction or operation. Among the states that have passed a similar bill are Texas, Louisiana and Tennessee. In addition to Ohio, five other states (Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, Minnesota and Missouri) have introduced an anti-protest bill and are still awaiting a final decision. States across the country are taking a stance to partner with and protect the development of the oil industry, while in effect, making most acts of protest against the energy industry illegal. 

The problem with SB 33 lies in the vagueness of its language that would make a simple act of protest against a pipeline a criminal offense. An individual can be charged with a third-degree felony for protesting or trespassing on any structure outlined in the bill, with fines up to $10,000. Further, organizations that participate in any protest activity could face fines as large as $100,000, or ten times the maximum fine imposed on an individual for a 1st degree misdemeanor ($1,000). The bill in all, protects the oil and gas industry from any interruption that might obstruct production.

Randy, along with many of his other community members have not taken to the introduction of the bill sitting down. In addition to community petitions and hearings, many individuals in opposition to SB 33 have documented their concerns through written testimony. In his testimony, Cunningham questions lawmakers’ intentions in the bill, explaining that most acts of protests within the state are done through nonviolent civil disobedience. Many individuals are trained to ensure that the demonstrations will be done in a structured way without the use of violence or damage to infrastructure. Randy questions why Ohio officials are concerned about such types of protests that peaceful exemplify Americans practicing their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and assembly.

Further, Randy likens the bill to some of the nation’s most historic transformative moments in which organizers have risen above industry and political control. Similar movements of the sort include the  the women’s suffrage movement and the achievement of labor rights. Randy explains that the bill will not quiet those in opposition to the threats the oil and gas industry place on the basic rights to human health.

The bill currently sits in committee on the House side of the Ohio State Legislature where it will then be taken to a vote. The bill passed within the Ohio Senate on May 1, 2019, with a majority vote of 28 to 8. Randy urges organizations and individuals to continue to comment on the bill expressing their concerns of opposition while it sits in committee. If the bill does pass, it will not signal the end of the fight. Community members, along with Randy, are prepared to take their fight to the highest level to combat the bill and its obstruction of basic civil rights. 

For more information on SB 33 please contact Teresa Mills at tmills@chej.org