SALT LAKE CITY—An award-winning independent journalist filed a lawsuit Wednesday against Tesoro and the Salt Lake City Police Department for illegally detaining him and accusing him of terrorism for taking photographs of a refinery.
Jesse Fruhwirth posted a video on the Internet (see below) of December 16, 2013, when an ice storm and power outage prompted a major pollution event at Tesoro’s tar sands refinery in the Rose Park neighborhood.
“I was in bed reading and through my window suddenly I could see that the night sky was ablaze as if all of Rose Park was on fire,” says Fruhwirth. “Only the refinery was on fire, but I knew that such huge flare offs were extra dangerous events for babies, old people and sick people and I thought it was important to film the fire that might severely sicken or kill some of my neighbors that night.”
Fruhwirth also filmed the interaction he had with a police officer who ordered him to stop filming. In the video, Salt Lake officer Yvette Zayas tells Fruhwirth that she detained him for taking pictures of “critical infrastructure,” that she would refer her report to a “Joint Terrorism Task Force” to protect “homeland security.”
Zayas is simultaneously a paid employee of Tesoro and SLCPD, but that night she was working directly on Tesoro’s payroll.
Zayas nevertheless was wearing her city-issued police uniform, carrying her city firearm, driving the city’s squad car, and accessing the public dispatch system. The Rent-a-Real-Cop program, Fruhwirth says, is blatant corporate welfare and has been gaining more critics as harmful corporations like Tesoro and controversial political organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council have hired real city police to work exclusively for them.
“Police are given virtually perfect immunity to arrest and sometimes even to kill people supposedly because cops work for the public interest to ‘keep the peace,’” Fruhwirth says. “So it’s incredibly dangerous and dishonest for the city to rent policing power to powerful corporations so that cops completely ignore the refinery’s deadly crimes and meanwhile shut down the law-abiding journalists trying to expose them.”
The civil rights lawsuit filed in federal district court Wednesday (attached) names as defendants police chief Chris Burbank, mayor Ralph Becker, Tesoro as well as Zayas.
Others have faced similar intimidation. Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment’s Dr. Brian Moench faced off with officer Zayas at Tesoro as well. “The exact same thing happened to me back in July ,” he says.
Fruhwirth aims for a ruling declaring such detentions illegal as well as exposure of the Rent-a-Real-Cop program. But he also hopes to bring attention to the story that enticed him to film the refinery in the first place.
“Tesoro’s use of tar sands as a feed stock brings some of the poisons killing multitudes of indigenous people in Alberta down to Rose Park, a neighborhood that’s home to many people of color and recent immigrants,” Fruhwirth says. “It’s a journalist’s obligation to document an especially poisonous night, at an especially poisonous facility that uses especially poisonous products like tar sands. It’s classic environmental racism and it’s killing my neighbors and Athabascans alike.”
Fruhwirth was twice a finalist for the Reporter of the Year by the Utah Society of Professional Journalists and has worked to expose police murders and police brutality.
He is represented by Stewart Gollan of the Utah Legal Clinic.
To read the complaint, click here.