A 23-year-old anti-fracking activist and student at Colorado State University was arrested Thursday on two charges of tampering with oil and gas equipment and second-degree criminal trespassing after protesting at a drilling site near Bella Romero Academy, a middle school in Greeley.
Cullen Lobe was still sitting in the Weld County North Jail Complex on a $2,000 bond as of 2:45 p.m. Thursday and had not been released on bond, according to the sheriff's department. He is expected to appear before court today at 2:30 p.m. on the charge of second-degree criminal trespass, according to the jail.
Lobe and a handful of other activists were protesting a proposed fracking site just 1,350 feet from Bella Romero. While no drilling has occurred yet, the site is expected to be ready for drilling this spring. Bella Romero Academy is a fourth-through-eighth-grade campus that comprises primarily low-income and Hispanic students; Lobe and other anti-fracking activists call the site a "clear-cut case of environmental racism." Parents at Bella Romero have protested the site over concerns of an explosion or chemical leak.
Lobe's lawyer, Jason Flores-Williams, had hoped the young activist would be released on his own recognizance instead of bond, saying that hitting activists with bonds was another way of "deterring dissent in this country."
"It should be personal recognizance in this case. Everybody knows why [Lobe] was there," Flores-Williams says. "A lot of the court system in Weld County has ties to oil and gas. We're considering as one of our first moves a motion to change venue because we have doubts he'll have a fair trial in Weld County."
Lobe and a handful of activists drove to the proposed drilling site Thursday morning around 9:15 a.m. One of those protesters is Jeremy Mack, an educator who says he was acting as an independent journalist in an attempt to bring public attention to this act of civil disobedience and raise awareness about fracking activity in the state. The protesters approached a worker who was manning a bulldozer and asked him to leave. They then proceeded to chain someone from their group to a bulldozer.
It's unclear whether Lobe was the activist chained to the bulldozer. He was the only one who was taken into custody and charged with tampering with oil and gas equipment. A Facebook Live stream captured part of their activities Thursday morning.
"The corruption of our state government and the ties that they have with the oil industry make it really difficult to have any hope of changing things through a legislative or legal route at this point, and as many of us know, hydraulic fracturing has many immediate and long-term risks. Those holes leak methane for an undetermined amount of time," Mack says.
Law enforcement arrived on the scene shortly thereafter, ordering the protesters to get off of private property. Mack says he and the other protesters walked back to public property at Bella Romero Academy, but their troubles didn't end there.
Mack says he was temporarily detained in a police car after an encounter with a peace officer went south. He was filming police activity from a sidewalk in front of the middle school when a peace officer told him to vacate the premises and go back to his car. As he was walking backward toward his car while continuing to take photos, one of the officers put his arm around Mack's back while another officer handcuffed him and put him in a patrol car, where he was then interrogated for thirty minutes, Mack recalls.
"They threatened to take me to jail if I didn't give up names of people," Mack says. "After they found out I was an educator, they were using felony as a tool to get me to speak," saying a felony charge would end his career.
Mack alleges that he was never told the reason for his detention or read his Miranda rights, and that he was denied the badge numbers and names of the law enforcement officers. He also says he was unsure which law enforcement agency he was engaging with, because the officers were not in uniform and drove unmarked vehicles.
"We didn't know what to expect, because nothing like this has ever been done in Weld County. I didn't realize that they were going to go so far as to detain me for taking pictures on a public sidewalk. ... It was intimidating and scary to be held with no explanation by four large men in black uniforms with guns strapped to their belts," Mack says.
Mack and at least one other protester were given citations, but only Lobe was taken into custody. Mack was cited for first-degree criminal tampering and second-degree criminal trespassing, but was released from custody at the scene. His first court hearing is scheduled for May 15. His camera was taken by law enforcement at the scene, but he was notified on Thursday that he can retrieve it.
"There are these two trends that have been seen now with dealing with dissent. One is [law enforcement] are overcharging people who engage in civil disobedience, and two, when independent journalists show up to cover and shine a light on the issues that are causing people to engage in civil disobedience, the police in America are now preventing them from filming and recording and are charging them. That's a direct violation of the First Amendment freedom of the press," Flores-Williams says.
The Weld County Sheriff's Office was unavailable for comment.
Extraction Oil & Gas is the operator of the drilling site near Bella Romero Academy. The company declined to comment.
The company has a tarnished track record after one of its drilling sites exploded near Windsor on December 22.
Below is a field report from one of the Bella Romero activists, followed by Facebook Live videos of the protest.
Bella Romero Middle School
March 8th, 2018
Day 1 of action to stop the Bella Wells frack mine/natural has pipeline is underway. As I write, police are swarming the area.
Our comrade is still locked down to a bulldozer we found moving earth this morning in preparation for 2 horizontal fracture mine wells less than 600 Ft from a middle school playground. The dozer operator smiled and greeted us warmly, and explained he wouldn't want this project in his back yard either..
Police arrived minutes later and ordered a dispersal order, which many of our protectors abided by, besides our lock down guy.
We left the scene and awaited, within eyesight, fire trucks to cut the locks off of our comrade.
While we waited a convoy of unmarked police vehicles parked near us. I walked on public sidewalk and started photographing police. They ordered me to vacate the area and I began slowly walking away. They decided it wasn't fast enough.
I was illegally detained by 4 officers, without description of why I was being detained, without hearing my Miranda rights, and failed to provide names or badge numbers.
They proceeded to lecture me on benefits of frack mining operations in the region. And scolded my dangerous illegal actions. They released me after charging me with 1st degree criminal trespass and 2nd degree criminal tampering.
I'm now awaiting my surely arrested comrade at the weld county jailhouse.
More to come soon.