Owners of a proposed open-pit mine in the Penokee Hills engaged a paramilitary force to guard the area after Native American tribal leaders established an “education center” nearby.
The camp has drawn numerous environmentalists and protesters to the scene of the hotly contested project.
The Iron County Board recently postponed voting on a recommendation to pursue criminal or civil action against the campers. But county supervisors did agree to ask their forestry committee to take another look at the Penokee Harvest and Education Camp set up by the Lac Courte Orielles band of Lake Superior Chippewa near the site of Gogebic Taconite’s proposed mine.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker, over the objection of Wisconsin’s 11 tribes and many citizens in the region, eased the way for the mining operation earlier this year by signing legislation that relaxed pollution and other regulations.
A website for the tribe describes the off-reservation camp on Iron County forest land as a place to “educate visitors and locals about geology, ecology, traditional lifeways and Anishinaabe treaty rights.”
In late May, after the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources approved a permit for Gogebic to conduct exploratory drilling in the area, the camp population began to grow. Environmentalists responded to the tribe’s invitation to “come relax in the woods while giving your vacation a purpose.”
In July, the Iron County Board forestry committee recommended that supervisors take legal action against the camp. The county forest administrator complained that the camp violates a county ordinance requiring a permit to occupy the land for more than two weeks.
However, District Attorney Marty Lipske cautioned that under treaty rights – treaties of 1837 and 1842 – the tribe has special privileges on the forest land.
And representatives from the camp say they are staying, even if they received an eviction notice from the county.
Meanwhile, the Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services opened an investigation after receiving complaints related to Gogebic Taconite’s hiring of an Arizona firm, Bulletproof Securities, to police the area. The armed guards were assigned to protect the mining operations after conflicts with protesters that resulted in the arrest of one demonstrator said to be associated with Earth First.
On its website, Bulletproof Securities promotes its “strong record of accurately assessing risk and providing a security solution to control the risk rather than react to it” and promises experience in personal security detail, dealing with eco-terrorism and economic sabotage, border security, de-bugging, and armored vehicles services.
Gogebic defended employing the guards, but suspended their work after it was revealed that Bulletproof lacked a license to work in Wisconsin. Then, on Aug. 5, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Safety and Professional Services announced the firm is now licensed and the guards would soon return to the site.
Several Democratic lawmakers objected to the paramilitary-style guards, who were photographed in camouflage uniforms and masks, carrying semi-automatic weapons on public land.
Democratic state Sen. Bob Jauch called any aggression by protesters “idiotic,” but said nothing justified the hiring of a security force armed with assault weapons.
“The majority party in Wisconsin has a track record of not following the law, so it’s no surprise that their special interest friends were found acting in an illegal manner,” said state Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison, referring to Bulletproof as “an out-of-state heavily armed, private paramilitary militia.”
Sargent also took issue with the repeated arrests of peaceful protesters assembling daily at the state Capitol for the Solidarity Sing Along.
“I am appalled that the Walker Administration has decided to forcibly silence the voices of those who wish to peaceably assemblewwww in our state capitol,” Sargent said. “Time and again, Scott Walker has pushed policies that have inspired the people of our state to speak out. Whether it’s 20 people or 100,000, the right to free speech is not up for debate. It is enshrined in our state constitution.”
The Solidarity Sing Along dates to March 2011 and the massive protests against Walker’s push to limit collective bargaining and the rights of state workers, along with other items on the tea party agenda. Every weekday since, there has been a sing along at the Capitol at noon.
In late July, authorities began arresting the singers, citing them for demonstrating in the Rotunda without a permit. The arrests came five months after the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit seeking to block the Walker administration from requiring permits for demonstrations inside the Capitol for groups as small as four people.
On July 8, the judge in the case granted a preliminary injunction allowing groups of up to 20 people to gather without a permit inside the Capitol and a trial date on the merits of the ACLU case was set for Jan. 13, 2014.
ACLU of Wisconsin legal director Larry Dupuis cheered the judge’s action as a “huge victory for free speech.”
But soon after the judge issued the temporary injunction, Capitol police began arresting protesters, whose songbook includes variations on “We Shall Overcome,” “This Land is Your Land” and “If I Had a Hammer,” along with some relatively new folk tunes, including “The Koch Song” and “Scotty, We’re Comin’ for You.”
The demonstrators, whose numbers have exceeded 20 people, refuse to get permits, maintaining they have a right to protest under the Wisconsin Constitution. Article 1, Section 4 of the document states, “The right of the people peaceably to assemble, to consult for the common good, and to petition the government, or any department thereof, shall never be abridged.”
After witnessing arrests on July 24, Sargent said, “What I saw today was something I would expect out of a repressive dictatorship, not the state I love to call home.”