Journalist Karen Savage arrested for second time while covering anti-pipeline protest in Louisiana
On Sept. 18, 2018, freelance investigative reporter Karen Savage was arrested and charged with trespassing, while reporting on protests against the construction of the Bayou Bridge oil pipeline in Louisiana.
Savage was embedded with a camp of protesters, known as water protectors, who were aiming to defend a piece of land in Louisiana’s Atchafalaya River Basin, a wetlands area co-owned by hundreds of people.
Energy Transfer Partners, the company responsible for the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota, is trying to build its new Bayou Bridge oil pipeline through the area. Although some of the co-owners of the Atchafalaya River Basin property have given the company permission to build the pipeline, hundreds of others have refused to do so. Despite this, the company had already begun making alterations to the land, including removing trees and digging a ditch. It has also asked the state of Louisiana to use eminent domain to seize the land from the co-owners who object to the pipeline.
Savage told Freedom of the Press Foundation that one of the co-owners of the Atchafalaya Basin land who is resisting the pipeline had given her permission to be on the property.
“Some were actively resisting, and I had a letter from a landowner saying we were welcome to be on the property," she said. "For people to visit the property, you only need permission from one landowner.”
Savage had previously been arrested for trespassing while reporting on the pipeline protests on Aug. 18. Once she was released on bail, she returned to the resistance camp at the Atchafalaya River Basin to continue covering the protest movement.
Savage said that on September 3 and 4, she witnessed law enforcement officers treated protesters badly.
“They chased them, tackled them, and allowed pipeline security employees to put their hands on protesters," she said. "It was heavily violence and I got some pictures of law enforcement chasing them.”
She said that a few weeks later, on Sept. 17, she was riding in a vehicle that was pulled over in a different parish in Louisiana. The officers ran the ID's of everyone in the car, but everything came back fine and they were allowed to proceed after receiving a citation.
The next day, sheriff's deputies claimed that Savage had an outstanding warrant dating from Sept. 3.
Savage said that on September 18, she was tipped off by protesters to come to a particular part of the swamp, and when she pulled up in her boat to the ramp, she saw sheriff’s department officers present. As Savage began photographing the scene, the officers came to her and arrested her, allegedly on an outstanding warrant.
“They said they were arresting me for an outstanding warrant,” she said. “But I knew there was nothing out for me.”
Savage said that an individual who witnessed the arrest called the sheriff’s department to inquire why she was arrested and learned that there was no warrant out for her.
Savage was arrested under Louisiana's newly-enacted state law against "unauthorized entry of a critical infrastructure project." The Louisiana state law — which only went into effect on Aug. 1 — makes trespassing on a "critical infrastructure project" like an oil pipeline a felony punishable by up to five years in prison.
She had previously been arrested under the same law on Aug. 18.
Savage contrasted her treatment by the sheriff’s department to her previous arrest while covering the protest in August. Then, she said, the arrest wasn’t violent. But this time, she said the officers grabbed her roughly and pulled her hands back.
"They really hurt me arms, shoulders, and wrists," she said. "It was really unnecessary."
She said that the officers put her in the back of a police car and then drove her around for about an hour, which she found suspicious.
"It’s a 20 minute drive to the station," she said. "But they kept driving around through sugar cane fields, and I had no idea where he was taking me. I thought maybe it was intimidation because they didn’t actually have a warrant."
The St. Martin’s Sheriff Department did not respond to request for comment.
Savage said that, despite her two arrests, the local district attorney has not brought any criminal charges against her.
“I’m doubtful that they ever will," she said. "It was a very clear intimidation tactic to stop me from covering the story.”
“I will go back,” she added. “I’m not going to let them intimidate me. It’s our job to hold these officials accountable.”
On July 13, 2021, Louisiana District Attorney Bofill “Bo” Duhé dropped the charges against freelance investigative journalist Karen Savage following her 2018 arrests while reporting on protests against the construction of the Bayou Bridge oil pipeline in St. Martin Parish, the Louisiana Illuminator reported.
Savage was arrested for trespassing first on Aug. 18, 2018, and then again exactly one month later on Sept. 18, under the then-newly enacted state law against “unauthorized entry of a critical infrastructure project,” along with many others.
According to a lawsuit filed on behalf of Savage and a dozen others in May 2019, Savage was charged with two felonies under the law and faced a combined 10 years imprisonment and heavy fines. In an article for DeSmog, Savage wrote that Louisiana prosecutors had four years to decide whether to pursue the charges against her.
“Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, a Louisiana district attorney confirmed in July  that he will not prosecute me or the nearly two dozen pipeline opponents, known as ‘water protectors,’ who were also arrested,” Savage wrote.
“I do know the felony charges against me — and fear of what would happen if I was arrested while on bail for two felonies — prevented me from covering some of the most important events of the past three years, including protests after the police murder of George Floyd,” Savage wrote. “Election night I stayed home. I watched the January 6 insurrection on TV.”
In May 2021, District Judge Robert Summerhays granted District Attorney Duhé, Attorney General Jeff Landry and St. Martin Parish Sheriff Ronald Theriot’s motion to dismiss the claims brought by the landowners and organization plaintiffs in Savage’s lawsuit, but allowed Savage’s claims to move forward.
The case was transferred to the Western District of Louisiana and a trial is tentatively scheduled for August 2022.