A Fight to Stop I-69 Reveals the Bigger Battle

In a massive police operation involving at least three Indiana law enforcement agencies, a tree-sit, blocking the construction of a superhighway was brought down in its fifth week on June 20th. Named Camp B-Rad in tribute to Brad Will, the tree-sit delayed the clearing of dead trees for the first leg of construction for several weeks and was declared a free state. Though the tree-sit was evicted, and eight activists were arrested, many on questionable charges, the fight to stop this road is far from over.

For seventeen years, opposition to the building of new terrain I-69 between Indianapolis and Evansville has been fought by citizens of Indiana, growing to overwhelming proportions. Even the Indiana Department of Transportation (InDOT) has admitted that 75% of Indiana opposes its construction, and 94% of the 22,000 public comments on their Environmental Impact Statements condemn it. Many of these people, including those working with Roadblock Earth First! and the I-69 Listening Project, have come to realize that there is no democratic process in the building of I-69 – those with money and power simply don’t care about the repercussions of their actions.

The I-69 will destroy 7,000 acres of land including the Patoka Wildlife Refuge and evict over 400 people including an Amish community. It is part of the NAFTA superhighway that will enable the most ugly visions of FREE TRADE. The road will go as far north as Ontario and is planned to run all the way south to Mexico. It will connect with superhighways of the controversial Plan Puebla Panama project in Mexico and Central America. The PPP will pave over previously untouched jungles and displace indigenous and rural communities, causing them to seek sustenance in new sweatshops brought to them by NAFTA or in the US where they would work for slave wages. All of this, just to feed American and Canadian consumer “needs.”

With this future in mind, anti-I69 activists constructed a tree-sit near Evansville, Indiana in protest of this completely undemocratic process, hoping to delay construction to allow local landowners time to take their cases to court and get a fair amount for having their lives ruined by this highway. The tree-sits erected on May 18 are known as “dunk’em sits,” meaning that the platforms were held up by support lines running through pulleys that were attached to the trees. While the two trees occupied were not set to be cut, their support lines were tied off to 50-foot tall trees already cut down and set to be cleared by May 31 in order to prepare the area for the on- and off-ramps in the first 1.77 miles of construction this summer. Therefore, if anyone tried to cut the lines in order to clear the logs away, the platforms would drop sitters over forty feet. Police and media visited the tree-sit numerous times and were informed about the potential for injury or death repeatedly.

At 5:30 AM on June 20th, the five activists at the tree-sit awoke to thirty police officers swarming around woods of the tree-sit. The two tree-sitters, Andrew Joyce and Emily Cross, and the three on ground support, Laura Barnett, Nick Steinke, and Banu Quadir, were informed that they were being evicted from the grove and had fifteen minutes to leave before they would be arrested. The police also stated they would have no regard for the safety of those being evicted. The ground support crew chose to follow the instructions of the police, left the property, and walked on State Road 68 toward a nearby gas station at the intersection with SR 57. At this time, the police sent a negotiator up one of the occupied trees in an attempt to convince the sitters to come down. The sitters refused and one attempted to lock down. The police then used a cherry picker to remove both of the sitters, disregarding their assertions that such actions endangered their safety.

Indiana State Police (ISP) arrested the three ground support crew for charges of obstructing traffic. tree-sit supporters in nearby Evansville were informed of the arrests and mobilized to observe the eviction. Two vehicles drove to the tree-sit which was an approximate 30 minute distance away.

. At 6:30 AM, the first vehicle, a truck driven by Chad Frazier with two passengers riding in the bed (Michelle Soto and Eric Magas) left Evansville and soon realized they were being followed. They were stopped by ISP and Chad was tackled by police officers and forcibly shoved to the ground. One of the officers accused Chad of spitting on him, which he denied, and threatened to charge him with battery. Simultaneously, the two completely cooperative passengers were arrested at gunpoint and Michelle was shoved onto the hood of the truck. The second vehicle was stopped as well with the passengers being briefly detained and were threatened with arrest if they proceeded to the tree-sit.

The eight arrestees were taken to the Warrick County jail.. The charges brought by the state prosecutor Todd Corne included many questionable charges all of which were misdemeanors, except for Chad’s two charges. All eight were bailed out for $2450. We would like to note the wide variety of undue force, intimidation attempts, and unconstitutional tactics used by the police on June 20.

On May 19 two residential neighborhoods were visited by protesters chanting “I-69 Stop It Now” and “Polluting the land, polluting the water. Profiting off the earth’s slaughter” in front of the homes of John and Michael Gohmann, contractors for Gohmann Asphalt. The company has been awarded the contract to construct the first 1.77 miles of I 69, and now have decided to start a legal battle with activists. Gohmann seems to be working in conjunction with the FBI, Indiana State Police and various other law enforcement agencies to cripple the movement. At the second Gohmann demo 15 people were arrested solely on misdemeanor charges and yet the collective bail was upwards of $40,000. Those arrested are facing between one and three charges, these being trespassing, resisting law enforcement, and conversion (exerting unauthorized use or control of someone else’s property.) Many of these charges are groundless and clearly an attempt to intimidate activists into refraining from future actions against the road. No plea agreements have been accepted and trials dates are expected to be ongoing throughout the fall and possibly continue into the winter.

Additionally, a lawsuit, which appears to be a SLAPP suit, has been filed against the 16 individuals arrested at actions at the Gohmann Yard in Haubstadt, Indiana. A SLAPP suit is a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, in which a corporation or developer sues an organization in an attempt to scare it into dropping protests against a corporate initiative. Gohmann is seeking restitution for alleged damages. It is clear that the supposed “damages” are completely fabricated or, at the very least, hugely inflated. Gohmann was initially seeking $16,000 from the one individual arrested at the first action, but has since added the other 15 people arrested at the second action and increased the sought restitution to over $27,000. Included in the lawsuit is a statute stating that the defendants are potentially liable for up to three times that amount. This exorbitant sum is being demanded, despite the fact that the first person arrested was offered a plea agreement for their criminal charges requiring only about $330 in restitution for these supposed “damages.” This incredibly exaggerated and inaccurate sum seems to be intended to crush the movement against the I-69 and anyone who dreams of trying to stop this road.

Gohmann is filing a restraining order against all 16 people in a final attempt to quell their first amendment rights. The restraining order contains many over the top stipulations. Should it remain in place it would require that defendants remain a minimum of 100 yards away from any site that Gohmann has proprietary or monetary interest in. This would include all 1.77 miles of the route. The restraining order extends to many situations out of the control of defendants such as proximity to Gohmann trucks or driving by Gohmann sites.

According to many lawyers who have been consulted, the restraining order contains a law used to protect workers from potential stalkers and violence. A law typically used in domestic abuse situations is also cited. Clearly, this is an abuse of these laws, as none of the actions by defendants were violent, or intended to cause or threaten violence. Included in the restraining order were inflammatory documents and statements attempting to link defendants with extremist groups such as the Earth Liberation Front (an underground group which engages in sabotage and direct action in defense of the Earth). They attempted to link defendants to various other environmental groups with which they have no connection. It seems like an attempt to portray defendants as being part of a much broader network of eco-radicalism.

The legal situation can appear somewhat bleak right now. However, as one lawyer commented, “these are their biggest guns and they are pulling them out now, at the beginning.” Often large companies or the state attempt to overwhelm smaller groups with a lot of legal bureaucracy, knowing that it is a greater burden for those with fewer resources. These are clearly scare tactics meant to consume our energy and time but legally appear to be fairly groundless. Despite these difficulties the defendants plan to continue fighting this on all levels and will not let these tactics of intimidation stop them.

Though the tree-sit only lasted for four and a half weeks, it was able to delay construction for over two weeks, given that Gohmann’s clearing contract was supposed to end by May 31. Some of us foresee an even stronger campaign in the spring of 2009, as restraining orders and SLAPP suits are the most commonly used legal tools against activists; once we beat them, Gohmann will have nothing left. The restraining order is being handled by an Indiana ACLU lawyer and the civil suit is being handled by a friendly Indiana lawyer at a discount rate. The campaign is currently in a transition, as many long-terms have left the campaign and others leaving in the spring, but organizing among students and the leftist community of Bloomington is still happening.

We now call for folks to act in solidarity to let everyone involved with I-69 know that their participation is unwelcome and sinister. We also put out a call for fundraising, and the formation of affinity groups to travel to Southern Indiana to get to know the area for resistance next spring.

Besides the glamour of being shoved into the dirt by cops, we still need to organize community meetings, garden, fix bikes, cook food for large groups, go door-to-door, make flyers, hold workshops, find more housing, gather supplies, and lots more. If you are unable to come to Indiana and money is tight in your community, check out our wish-list at stopi69.wordpress/how-to-help, and send the supplies our way. Make sure you check out stopi69.wordpress.com/forum for the ride and supply boards.

Legal funds or contacts are greatly appreciated and being sought. If you have any ideas or resources please contact roadblockef@yahoo.com