Bush administration targets Greenpeace

Feature story - 13 October, 2003
In a move unprecedented in its history, the US government has indicted an entire organization - Greenpeace USA, Inc. (the Greenpeace entity in the US) - for the peaceful protest activities of its supporters.

Greenpeace opposes illegal mahogany shipments into the US.

The protest

In April 2002, several miles off the coast of Florida, two Greenpeace activists boarded the Jade - a ship carrying wood illegally exported from the Brazilian Amazon.

The activists made it clear by their appearance, words and actions that they were engaged in a peaceful effort. The fact that the activists had "Greenpeace" on their boats and clothing helped to reassure the crew of the Jade that the people coming on board were peaceful and safety conscious. When they boarded the ship, using a ladder hanging from its side, they brought with them a banner reading, "President Bush: Stop Illegal Logging".



US Government response

But instead of intercepting the contraband and prosecuting the smugglers, the US government is going after Greenpeace. Making this the first time in history that the US government has prosecuted an entire organization for free speech related activities, and they are trying to do it without a jury trial.

In context

The activists off the coast of Miami were continuing a long US tradition of protest and civil disobedience. This tradition stretches back to include the civil rights movement, women's suffrage and the Boston Tea Party. Plus, they were essentially acting as whistle-blowers - publicly exposing, and trying to prevent, the importation of illegally harvested mahogany wood.

Their action was a small, but important, contribution to a global effort - which helped prompt an agreement, at an international conference that November, to give mahogany greater global protection.

For its work on this issue, Greenpeace received praise from the European Union, and the government of Brazil... And now a landmark indictment from the US government.

Charges and what's at stake

- One violation of U.S.C. section 2279, which prohibits persons, "not being duly authorized by law for the purpose," from "[going] on board any vessel about to arrive at the place of her destination, before her actual arrival, and before she has been completely moored".

- And one count of conspiracy, under 18 U.S.C. section 371, to commit this offense.

The potential fine, of $10,000 USD per charge, is serious money for an organization that doesn't accept corporate or government donations. The organization could also receive up to five years of probation.

Ongoing government monitoring, if sentenced to probation, would make Greenpeace's role as a watchdog and advocacy group difficult, to say the least. But it is the legal precedent that could be most damaging for Greenpeace and other advocacy groups in the US.

A crucial part of what Greenpeace does is the exercise of its right to free speech in calling attention to environmental problems. A tactic this protest exemplifies: In an effort to help save the Amazon, activists engaged in a very public direct action.

Obviously, a conviction in this case could have a chilling effect on the ability of Greenpeace, and other groups, to effectively criticize powerful corporate and government targets on social and environmental issues.

A trial is scheduled to take place this fall.

More information

Legal briefs and more background (on the Greenpeace USA website).

Miami New Times: The Greenpeace Effect: "Environmental advocates claim they just want loggers to play by the rules. But Brazilian mahogany barons, local lumber lords, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the Port of Miami all want these tree-huggers stopped"

New York Times: Typical Greenpeace Protest Leads to Unusual Prosecution: "It was a routine act of civil disobedience until, 15 months after the incident, federal prosecutors in Miami indicted Greenpeace itself for authorizing the boarding. The group says the indictment represents a turning point in the history of American dissent."

"The extraordinary effort made to find and use this obscure law strongly suggests a campaign of selective prosecution - the greatest scourge of the First Amendment."

--George Washington University Law Professor Jonathan Turley, special to the Los Angeles Times in Arbiter Online

Take action

Join Greenpeace

Tell the US Government to prosecute illegal loggers, not Greenpeace.

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