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‘They criminalize us’: how felony charges are weaponized against pipeline protesters

Twenty states have passed laws that criminalize protest over ‘critical infrastructure,’ including pipelines. In Minnesota, at least 66 felony theft charges against Line 3 protesters remain open

Water protectors hold hands while facing off with police at Red Lake Treaty Camp, a ceremonial and Indigenous-led protest camp against the Line 3 oil pipeline, on July 23, 2021.

[Photo Credit: Chris Trinh]

By Alexandria Herr for Floodlight

Last summer Sabine von Mering, a professor of German at Brandeis University, drove more than 1,500 miles from Boston to Minneapolis to protest the replacement of the Line 3 oil pipeline that stretches from Canada’s tar sands down to Minnesota


Along with another protester, she locked herself to a semi-truck in the middle of a roadway, according to a filed court brief, as a means of peaceful resistance. But when she was arrested, she was charged with a serious crime: felony theft, which carries up to five years in prison.

“It’s very scary that they criminalize us like that, and to face jail time,” said von Mering, 54, of her June arrest. “But what can I do? I feel responsible to my kids and future generations.

Von Mering is one of nearly 900 protesters who were arrested in Minnesota for protesting the pipeline’s construction, and one of dozens facing felony charges. Construction on the Line 3 pipeline was finalized in Oct. 2020. It carries 760,000 barrels of oil per day across northern Minnesota. But its construction for years has stoked fierce protests and legal challenges, led by Indigenous activists in northern Minnesota who worried about potential impacts of oil spills and the pipeline’s threat to treaty rights to gather wild rice. While most of the arrests have led to misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor charges for crimes including “disturbing the peace,” and “trespassing,” felony charges like von Mering’s mean protestors are facing years of jail time.


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