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Michigan's crime victim restitution laws being used by corporations to make protesters pay

Duncan Tarr owes twice as much in crime victim restitution as he does in student loans after he was arrested for trespass in connection with a protest against the line 6B oil pipeline.
Sarah Alvarez
Michigan Radio

For protesters and activists unhappy with a particular company or industry, driving up the cost of doing business is a tried-and-true way to apply pressure. Think about the grape boycott in the late 1960s for farm workers' rights. Or more recently, protests over worker wages at fast-food restaurants

Now some corporations are fighting back by putting financial pressure on activists like Duncan Tarr, a 20-year-old junior at Michigan State University.

Tarr is also an activist and cares deeply about Enbridge Energy’s line 6Bpipeline. The pipeline, which moves tar sands oil from Canada through Michigan and has an imperfect safety record, was being replaced last summer. Tarr and a group he’s part of were determined to get some attention.

Tarr says things started with a traditional picket. Then, “My co-defendant and I stopped a truck. And we locked our necks to the truck with U-locks that you use, for like a bicycle,” he says.  Firefighters came and cut the locks. The whole thing – the protest and the detaching – took about 90 minutes.

Tarr and one other young man were arrested and charged with trespassing; they expected that. What they didn’t expect was for Enbridge’s contractor, Precision Pipeline, to use Michigan’s crime victim restitution laws to assess charges to make up for the value of equipment and workers idled during their protest. Duncan Tarr was ordered to pay Precision Pipleine $39,226 in restitution. That’s twice as much as he owes in student loans.

Bankruptcy won’t get rid of a restitution order in Michigan, where restitution laws are among the most inflexible in the nation.

Precision Pipeline repeatedly declined to comment for this story. Enbridge Energy, in an email from a spokesperson back in March, said in part, “We hope the convictions and the court’s decision will serve to deter others from creating unsafe situations in the future.”

Rashad Robinson heads up Color of Change, a national civil-rights group that successfully pressured the Mall of America to drop a restitution claim against a group of protestors that disrupted business with an action tied to the Black Lives Matter movement. He says he’s seen restitution used this way in Michigan, in California, and in Minnesota.

“It’s a tactic that we’re seeing especially as corporations continue to gain more and more power in our democracy,” he says.

In some ways, what’s going on between activists and their targets is a steady escalation on both sides. Roger Pillon, vice president of legal affairs at the Cato Institute, thinks it’s only fair protesters begin to bear some financial costs as well, particularly when they trespass to try to make a point.

“We’ve established rules for protest. If you violate them, you can’t expect to get away scot-free,” he says. “After all, you can’t impose the cost of your moral virtue on the backs of people who are just trying to run their own business.”

Andy Hoffman teaches business at the University of Michigan. He says while some companies might feel backed into a corner by activists, he wonders if demanding crime victim restitution will backfire.

“This tactic could embolden more people to hate this company even more and go after them even stronger,” he says. “I think it’s a risky strategy.”

Duncan Tarr, the college student activist, says it hasn’t affected the anti-pipeline protesters he knows.

“The people who know about the restitution, that’s something else they see as a really horrible thing. Some people have gotten involved after learning about the restitution.”

It’s difficult to see how the use of financial tools will change the landscape of activism. It is certainly making an impact on individual protesters. Consider Duncan Tarr: The pipeline he was protesting against is up and running.

Meanwhile, he stills owes more than $39,000 dollars on his restitution bill. 

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