Since November, members of Everglades Earth First! have been holding protests outside of Kolter Group’s offices in downtown West Palm Beach, to let the public know about the company’s destruction of the Briger Forest. And lately, Kolter Group has been showing signs that the pressure is getting to them.
Today, as three members of Everglades Earth First! chanted and banged on a pot outside of Kolter’s offices, an angry employee picked the group’s megaphone up off of the ground, said “Fuck you” to the protesters, shouted insults, and then sprinted off with the megaphone in his hands. The protest continued, with protesters too shocked and confused to chase after him. The employee then returned, without the megaphone, and shoved both protesters as they tried to speak with him about the stolen equipment. As protesters stepped back to give him room, the angry employee kicked a glass jar full of water belonging to one of the protesters, shattering it across the sidewalk. Finally he grabbed a protest sign that said “Stop Destroying the Briger Forest,” and ran off with it into the building.
Having now lost a megaphone, a sign, and a jar of water, protesters approached the lobby of the building to try and at least get the megaphone back. They were told by the same visibly angry employee that they could have their megaphone if they left the building. Clearly dealing with a child having a tantrum, they played along, leaving promptly. The doors were locked quickly behind them, with the megaphone still inside. The employee exited the building shortly after, but instead of returning the stolen items he grabbed a spoon out of a protester’s hand and chucked it towards the street.
Eventually police arrived—Kolter called them—and returned the megaphone to the Earth First!ers, who decided to leave the area before things escalated any further.
This is not an isolated incident, nor was it simply the autonomous act of a violent, pathetic employee. Rather, this is part of an escalating pattern of reactionary outbursts from Kolter, designed to intimidate protesters, dissuade free speech, and silence the voices of anyone who wishes to speak in defense of the forest.
Because of Kolter’s refusal to allow peaceful protests outside of their doors, activists have been forced to only engage in surprise demonstrations. The last time a Kolter protest was announced on the internet was last month, on May 7, and protesters arrived to find an insufferably loud power washer revving away outside the building. The entrance to the building was roped off, the motor was turned on as protesters approached—in an attempt to drown out the chanting and singing, no doubt—and workers did not hesitate to spray demonstrators with pressurized bursts of water as they chanted in defense of the forest.
At that same May 7 demonstration, employees hung a poster on Kolter’s building, depicting the face of Grayson Flory, a member of Everglades Earth First!, along with his name, home address, partial arrest record, and some insulting, childish language. The top of the poster said “Grayson B Flory is a JOKE!” and the activist’s gender was labeled as “Loser Male.”
At the time, the protesters simply laughed off these petty attempts to dissuade peaceful protest and First Amendment protected speech. However, in light of today’s glass breaking, spoon throwing, equipment stealing, insult spewing, volatile employees in Kolter’s building, it isn’t quite as funny.
How is the public supposed to exercise free speech when corporations make it dangerous to do so? How are concerned citizens supposed to feel justified in spreading news about local environmental issues to neighbors of the Briger Forest, children, and other members of the public, when doing so could inspire such people to join a protest, and thus expose them to potentially violent, psychologically damaging situations, thanks to Kolter’s erratic responses to free speech?
Corporations and others commonly accuse environmental and animal rights protesters of caring more about plants and animals than people. Well, by continuing to destroy the forest, and by their violent actions towards protesters, Kolter has made it perfectly clear that they don’t care about any of the above.
Despite Kolter’s intimidation, the protests will continue. Ryan Hartman, one of the protesters who was shoved and called an “asshole” today by the disgruntled employee, says he won’t stop standing up for the forest and for his right to gather and speak publicly. “It was really terrifying. I didn’t know what they were going to do, if they were going to stop there or keep getting angrier and really hurt someone. And to be honest, the idea of going back to those offices is scary. But we are within our rights, we are following the law, and I’m not going to be bullied into stopping my activism. The forest is still being cut down by Kolter and KAST. We aren’t going to stop until they do.”