In March of 2022, the Oregon Secretary of State’s office released an advisory report that functioned as a call to action. It was titled “Oregon Can Do More to Mitigate the Alarming Risk of Domestic Terrorism and Violent Extremist Attacks.”
The report noted that, despite its modest size, Oregon saw the sixth highest number of violent extremist attacks in the nation between 2011 and 2020, and yet remains one of just 16 states without a law defining or specifically criminalizing domestic terrorism.
The report, which was based in part on interviews with a number of representatives of law enforcement agencies including the FBI, Department of Justice, and the Oregon State Police, urged Oregon lawmakers to enact a new state law defining and criminalizing domestic terrorism.
It suggested that Georgia’s domestic terror law, expanded in the aftermath of the mass murder perpetrated by white supremacist Dylann Roof at a Charleston, South Carolina church in 2015, could serve as a model.
Now, in this year’s legislative session, an effort to pass such a law is well underway. House Bill 2772, sponsored by Rep. Paul Evans, a Democrat from Monmouth, a person would be guilty of domestic terrorism if they act "with the intent to cause widespread sickness, contagion, serious physical injury, death or the disruption of services provided by critical infrastructure." Violators would face up to 10 years in prison.
HB 2772 was referred to the Ways and Means Committee in April, with the bill’s Democratic backers arguing it is a necessary measure to protect Oregonians from domestic terror like the power grid substation attacks last year.
“I’m trying to protect, quite frankly, the core elements of society in a time where some people earnestly believe that government is evil, that the end times are here, and that somebody or something is telling them that they need to go ahead and break down those functions of society,” Evans said.
But an increasingly organized and vocal coalition of progressive activists and civil rights organizations are warning that the legislation, which has already passed out of the House Judiciary Committee, won’t accomplish its stated goals and is ripe for abuse by law enforcement.
What’s happening in Georgia right now is cited as a prime example. The domestic terror law strengthened in the aftermath of the Charleston shooting is not being used to charge and prosecute far right actors, but rather climate defenders protesting the construction of Cop City outside Atlanta.
In March, more than 40 activists in Georgia were arrested at a music festival being held in the Atlanta forest to support the Stop Cop City movement, and charged with domestic terrorism for alleged offenses including vandalism and arson at the construction site.
Whether or not those activists are ultimately convicted, the weight of a domestic terrorism charge is difficult to overstate.
“Your life is forever changed,” Sarah Alvarez, a staff attorney at the Civil Liberties Defense Center, said. “The mere charging of that, in and of itself, is going to have repercussions for you outside the legal system and repercussions for you in how your case is treated.”
Evans, for his part, said he is “disgusted” by the opposition to the bill and called comparisons to Georgia “goofy”—noting the fact that Oregon judges and district attorneys are elected, which he says creates more checks and balances against law enforcement overreach than many other states have.
“I take part in protests, and I value protests,” Evans said. “But I also was in the Capitol the day that those idiots tried to storm the Capitol, a month before what they did on the Capitol steps in D.C. I do know that we’re living in an era where people have forgotten some of the boundaries. So I took an oath to defend our people and place.”
Alvarez said she understands why lawmakers and citizens have been scared by the domestic terror incidents of the last several years, both in the state and around the country. This approach, however, strikes her as naive.
“I think there’s an inherent reliance and trust in institutions like policing and prosecutors to do their jobs well and work in a highly ethical and democratic and nonpartisan way—and in reality, which I thought most people were kind of aware of, we have problems with policing,” she said.
A recent anonymous survey of Portland police, for instance, found that the bureau is home to “racial bias and white supremacy ideology” and that the city has one of the highest arrest disparities in the country. The force’s lax policing of the Proud Boys drew national scrutiny.
Evans believes that increasing the criminal penalties for doing things like sabotaging the power grid or storming the capitol may make people less willing to break those laws, but not everyone is convinced.
“There are [an] ample number of statutes to address that kind of violence, both at the federal level and at the state and local level,” Michael German, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, said. “What this really is is an effort by law enforcement authorities to target groups that they prefer to target.”
That could be a serious issue in Oregon, which is home to a robust climate defense movement that has historically been willing to use direct action in its attempts to stop pipelines, oil trains, and other forms of environmental destruction.
Emily Hawley, senior policy associate at the ACLU of Oregon, offered an example: in 2019, climate defenders with Extinction Rebellion PDX planted a garden on Zenith Energy’s train tracks in Northwest Portland. Those activists were arrested for trespassing, but ultimately not convicted of a crime after a climate necessity defense resulted in a mistrial.
“Could an overzealous prosecutor argue they were attempting to derail a train?” Hawley said. “Especially with the label terrorism, this law becomes a really tempting and useful political tool to quell unrest—and charges, however baseless, can be made against a group to stigmatize an entire movement.”
The law, Hawley said, would be much more likely to have a chilling effect on climate defenders than people who are attempting to sabotage the power grid. The inclusion of language about property damage and infrastructure, meanwhile, is of particular concern to climate defenders because of its ties to the oil and gas companies.
In the aftermath of protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock in 2016, nearly 20 states have passed so-called critical infrastructure strengthening penalties for people who demonstrate at sites like oil and gas facilities and railroads. In many states, that work has come at the urging of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a right-wing bill mill supported by corporate entities and Republican state legislators.
While HB 2772 in Oregon does not directly mirror ALEC’s draft legislation on critical infrastructure, opponents are concerned about the effects it could still have on free speech in the state—especially as the climate crisis deepens.
Evans is confident that the bill will pass, either in this session or another one. Another bill, aimed at targeting paramilitary activity, has drawn opposition from civil rights groups for many of the same reasons—reflecting a broader split within the state’s Democratic coalition on how to combat domestic terrorism.
Hawley said an effort to combat domestic terror in Oregon should start with efforts to identify and eliminate far right sympathies within the state security apparatus. She also said HB 2990, which would make money available for communities to build resilience networks, could also help shore up the state’s critical infrastructure.
“It’s just this incredibly short-sighted fix,” Alvarez said of the paramilitary bill. “I applaud them for wanting to try to make fixes, but it just doesn’t seem to take into account the reality of what people experience on the ground.”
This story has been updated to reflect language in the most recent version of the bill.