Traffic was again flowing freely on the Fred Hartman Bridge Friday morning after the Harris County Sheriff’s Office removed and arrested protesters from Greenpeace who suspended themselves from the bridge as a protest against the use of oil products.
Protesters lowered themselves from the bridge about 6:30 Thursday morning, staging their protest to coincide with Houston being in the national media spotlight as host of a Democratic presidential candidate debate.
Commuters waited hours to cross the northbound side of the bridge as emergency response personnel monitored the protest and kept vehicles away from the protesters.
Around 5:30 p.m. the sheriff’s office arrested 12 Greenpeace activists who were on the bridge serving as support persons for the 11 who were suspended from the structure, then started having sheriff’s SWAT team member rappel down to the suspended protesters, then lower them to waiting boats for arrest.
That tedious process took until about 12:30 a.m. when the final one was taken into custody.
While deputies were lowered, the Houston Fire Department and the Baytown Fire Department staffed the ropes attaching them to the bridge.
Baytown city spokesman Mark Miller said that BPD provided its technical rescue team for the high-angle rescue, medical personnel and command officers for support.
Baytown fire personnel regularly train for high-angle rescue, though it is usually needed in a context of workers trapped or injured on cranes, industrial towers, construction sites or similar situations.
The department also kept an ambulance on standby on the bridge in the event of medical emergencies.
Miller said that during the extraction operation, the ambulance was staged at the Bayland Marina, where law enforcement boats were based for the operation.
Two Baytown medics were on the HCSO retrieval boat and two more on a second watercraft in case of medical needs during the operation.
In all, the Baytown Fire Department had 19 personnel on the scene from 10:30 a.m. Thursday until 1:30 a.m. Friday. The department also provided rope, harnesses and other rescue tools.
Miller said the city supports First Amendment rights, but that protesters crossed the line by breaking the law and putting people at risk.
“You affected the local economy, you affected the traffic, you affected people’s ability to get to and from work, you affected people’s safety in terms of that traffic for emergency vehicles, and you directly got someone hurt in a traffic accident. These people are no longer just exercising first amendment rights, they’re disrupting a sizeable community,” Miller said.
“Our elected officials and our city staff here are not impressed with these folks from Greenpeace.”
While the protest was continuing and before arrest efforts began, local politicians weighed in.
U.S. Representative Brian Babin posted on Facebook, “[HCSO] should remove these protesters immediately. When law enforcement refuses to enforce the law there is anarchy, the very definition of lawlessness.”
State Representative Briscoe Cain said he went to the bridge personally to try to persuade officials to remove the protesters, especially in light of the newly enacted law prohibiting the blocking of “critical infrastructure.”
Cain said the law went into effect Sept. 1, and he thinks this is the first time it was used.
Charges filed on protested included misdemeanor trespass as well as the new law, a state jail felony.
The sheriff’s office said charges would be considered in relation to the crash apparently caused by the protest.