Of the 21 protesters arrested in July of last year in Utah for participating in a direct action aimed at stopping operations at the first tar sands mining operation in the United States, six have now been charged with 'rioting' by local prosecutors.
According to the Salt Lake Tribune, the six—Jesse J. Fruhwirth, Camila A. Ibanez, Damien T. Luzzo, Laura M. Gottesdiener, Daniel J. Gruppo and Victor E. Puertas— could face harsh punishments after being charged with interference with an arresting officer, a class-A misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail, and the crime of "rioting," a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison.
Fourteen others who were arrested at the protest were charged with the lesser count of criminal trespass, while one individual was charged with refusing to obey the command of a police officer.
Responding to the elevated charges of the six named, Utah Tar Sands Resistance, a group which helped organize the nonviolent protest, asked, "When did a peaceful sit-in become a felony riot?"
All of those charged are expected to enter pleas to the local district court later this week.
The July 2014 action, as Common Dreams reported at the time, involved roughly 80 climate justice activists who entered the construction site operated by the Calgary-based US Oils Sands corporation and unfurled a banner which read "You are trespassing on Ute land," referring the project's encroachment on native land, and "Respect Existence or Expect Resistance." Later, some of the group locked themselves to equipment and others blocked a nearby road.
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In a statement released on behalf of the protesters in the wake of their initial arrests last year, spokesperson Jessica Lee said the US Oil Sands project in Utah "perfectly demonstrates capitalism's brazen disregard for the climate crisis, human and tribal rights and rights of the planet itself to be free of dangerous corporate parasites."
Recounting the incident more recently, the Tribune reports:
Deputies arrested 13 of [the activists] and loaded them into white county vans, according to activists’ social media posts.
But when one of the vans approached protesters who had retreated to the main road, those protesters sat down in the roadway and locked their arms, blocking the vans, according to the charges.
"They started chanting that they wanted us to let their people go," a Uintah County sheriff’s deputy wrote in a jail document.
The officers warned the protesters several times and asked them to disperse, but the group "advanced on our location," according to the charges. That’s when deputies arrested Fruhwirth, Ibanez, Luzzo, Gottesdiener, Gruppo and Puertas, during which all of them became violent and resisted the officers, the charges add.
And the local KSL News reports:
Officials with U.S. Oil Sands have said that 200 exploratory wells at the mine site show that 190 million barrels of oil can be successfully recovered. The company holds leases to nearly 6,000 acres of school trust lands in northeastern Utah.
Crews are currently doing site preparation work at the mine. U.S. Oil Sands expects to begin mining operations by the end of 2015.
Those charged in connection with July's protest listed addresses in Utah, Arizona, California, Illinois, Michigan, Nebraska, New York, North Dakota, Oregon and Wisconsin when they were booked into the Uintah County Jail. They are all scheduled to make their first court appearances Thursday.