SLAPP Suits are Back!

Little Rock   SLAPP suits used to be so common that we had to routinely include discussion of their likelihood in campaign training sessions. SLAP stood for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. They were a huge pain in the pocketbook!

Of course such suits never went away as a tool of corporations and conservatives to achieve exactly what the words say, an effort to stifle citizen action, protest, and participation. The premise was less on the law or its merits than the courtroom equivalent of schoolyard bullying since almost by definition big companies have canyon deep pockets while most nonprofits are scrapping by from month to month, paycheck to paycheck. SLAPP suits are hard for companies to actually win, but they can drain the coffers of the activist or nonprofit organization, and, perhaps more importantly for the initiator, they can intimidate others from jumping into the fray or doing something similar. Freedom of speech and libel laws being what they are in the United States, they provide some real firewalls, but the pain inflected can be brutal and lethal.

I mention all of this because of a small piece in the Wall Street Journal noting that the pipeline company, Energy Transfer Partners, that is behind the Dakota Access Pipeline that galvanized the country last fall and triggered the Standing Rock Sioux and their supporters in a long encampment and protest, has filed a SLAPP suit against Greenpeace and other environmental groups centering on those events. They are claiming $300 million in damages based on delays in the final approval of the pipeline and other actions. As disturbingly, they filed under the Racketeering and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO as it is known, that also allows for a tripling of damages if they are successful, making all of this almost a billion dollar headache for Greenpeace and its allies.

This is grist for the mill in this work, but in another note the Journal reporter followed the cookie trail back to Kasowitz, Benson Torres, the law firm that filed this suit and an earlier suit last year against Greenpeace as well on behalf of multinational forestry company Resolute Forest Products. Chillingly, they note: “One of the law firm’s founders, Marc Kasowitz, served as Trump’s personal lawyer.” I was schooled years ago that organizers always needed to look for the “fine hand” behind the story, making it uncomfortable to believe that there is now a green light that has flashed on once again beckoning perhaps from the ever litigious President in the White House.

In recent years more of the efforts to scuttle citizen action and protests has been devious reputational attacks meant to damage organizations and frighten supporters and donors, but the word is obviously being passed around the dark hallways of corporations and their law firms that these costly, frivolous SLAP suits are worth bringing to the forefront again.

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One People Under the Moon and Sun

Columbia   Our ACORN Home Savers Campaign committee had been in Charlotte, North Carolina and was scheduled for Columbia, South Carolina some 90 minutes away. Panic pedaling about massive numbers of visitors and traffic jams because of the 2 ½ minutes scheduled for the city because of the total eclipse, had us on the road at 530 am for an 8am meeting. Of course we were sitting at a McDonalds having breakfast and chatting by 7am within a mile or two of our destination.

The traffic seemed normal on the interstates. Reports from all around the country seemed to confirm something along the same lines. There was little panic and uproar, just heads facing the clouds.

We had ordered our special eclipse glasses, 100 times stronger than regular sunglasses, weeks before, and, yes, they were certified, so we had no worries. We had tried them on the night before in Charlotte, and initially were surprised that we were essentially staring at black, since the glasses emitted no light. Jamie Jimenez from Philadelphia finally shined a flashlight app from his phone right to the rim of the glasses and we saw enough light to believe we would be OK and full-fledged members of the geek parade.

We drove out of town to a small town called Blythewood which was in the band of totality. The park looked like a picnic area. We stopped at a wings-and-ribs place around noon that had a line by the time we left with parking lots full. Families stood by the hoods of their cars or crouched in air conditioning as the moon started its creep across the edge of the sun. We stood there and did the same. Some of our team had earlier planes, so after ten minutes or so, we decided to move up the highway. The next stop was right at the edge of totality about 35 miles from Columbia. Neon signs flashed warning cars not to just pull off the side of the road, and very few did, though I thought that would have been a pretty good idea. There were a couple of cars at a turnoff there, and we measured the eclipse again. It was all amazing, but we voted to be happy with almost 99% and move even closer to Charlotte.

The next stop at a Pilot truck stop the lot was full. People parked everywhere. There was a party and festival atmosphere. We failed to get ice cream, so the next exit we just pulled off by the side of the road. There was an 18-wheeler that had done so across the highway. We were going to see it through the next 20-minutes. A young African-American woman parked on the side of the road about 30 feet up from us minutes later. She was holding a baby, had a youngster in the back seat, and was clearly pregnant again. I walked up and asked if she wanted an extra pair of our glasses so she and the kids could see the eclipse.

A yellowish light was forming around us as totality approached. A breeze came up and the temperature dropped noticeably. Crickets suddenly started chirping and jumping. Nelson Griffin, one of our team from Detroit, was bitten by a ladybug?!? We were in awe at power of the universe, and humbled.

Our young mother and neighbor walked up and thanked us after the celestial show was over before we piled in for the run to the airport and home. It was an amazing display of the magic of the world, but it was also a brief period in America when we were actually one community, facing in the same direction, one people under the moon and sun, the way we were meant to be, and never are.

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