©2015 Julie Dermansky
©2015 Julie Dermansky

“It’s stressful and it makes it to where I can’t sleep at night,” Sergeant Scott Jenkins’ voice cracked through my phone late on a Friday night, “But for someone in their thirtieth year in law enforcement, this has been a really important assignment.” An undeniable sense of pride shone through the accumulated exhaustion of his previous week policing protests against oil and gas operators. Born and raised in the north Texas town of Denton, Scott Jenkins will tell you that he takes immense pride in his city, his state, and the constitution.

It’s that pride, displayed on a sunny Monday afternoon, which gives context to an action that has perplexed many onlookers. Minutes before arresting three anti-fracking protestors for trespassing, Sergeant Jenkins bent over and shook the hands of all three he was about to handcuff.

“I told them that they had achieved a great victory. I thanked them for their service to the community,” the Sergeant recalled.

“You can show respect to people even when making an arrest. We don’t have to denigrate those we come in contact with. These are our own citizens.”

He explained to me that regardless of his own views, beliefs, and political opinions, his deep respect for “that most venerated of American documents” guides him to balance the expression of rights by all sides in his policing: anti-fracking protestors, pro-fracking protestors, oil and gas workers, interested citizens, passersby, and media personnel. All people deserve a voice when an issue involves their homes, their families, and their livelihoods.

Denton had previously been the sight of a democratic show down involving oil and gas producers during the November 2014 elections. After the Denton City Council had initially voted down a motion that would have banned fracking within the city limits, local groups rallied and placed a referendum on the November ballot that would allow the citizens to directly speak to how oil and gas extraction in their community could occur. With almost a sixty percent majority, they voted as a community to not allow fracking in their borders. While there were those who condemned the vote in the strongest terms, the democratic process had spoken.

But the recent signing of HB 40 by Texas governor Greg Abbott stripped municipalities of the ability to explicitly or effectively ban types of oil and gas extraction. With Denton’s ban stripped away by the swishing of the gubernatorial pen, some Denton residents have taken to enforcing the ban themselves. As crews attempted to re-enter work zones, protestors sat in the roads to their work sites, blocking drillers and their trucks from getting back to work.

These competing laws, each backed by equally intense emotions and passions, set the stage for what some on both sides are calling ‘the battle to defend Denton.’

The debate that surrounds issues of petroleum extraction methods (fracking in particular) tends to see the creation of vast fields of strawmen; appearing real but ultimately being one dimensional. If the deafening debate is to be believed, those who operate fracking wells are greedy, heartless villains who twirl their mustaches while counting the money bought at the price of others’ lives. On the other side, but just as one dimensional, those who would oppose fracking are idealistic and stupid youths who would see society fall to economic ruin just to find a false sense of accomplishment.

But if you take the time to dig down into the complicated realities of the issue you quickly unearth something that is undeniably human. You may find a fourth generation, small town oilman weeping as he describes what he sees as the outlawing of his family’s business. He fears that new laws will force him from the only community he has ever known. The very next person you uncover may be a woman who bitterly describes the unjust suffering of her children caused by pollution from drilling rigs that drifts over her house. She will try to steady her voice as she describes the vulnerability and anger she feels every time she looks out her kitchen window at the drilling rig not three hundred feet from her door.

Which of these emotions can be said to be more legitimate? While legislative change will always benefit some and cost others, the ability to speak and to be heard should serve as the irrevocable core of our democracy. It’s that core which Sergeant Jenkins sees himself as upholding.

“We want to facilitate the expression of people’s opinion; the expression of their freedom of speech, their freedom to assemble, the freedom of the press, the right to redress grievances without violating the rights of anyone else.”

In fact, Sergeant Jenkins was selected specifically for the protest assignment because of his knowledge and focus on the constitution. For years he has taught fellow officers about constitutional law through continuing education courses.

“What we teach our officers at the police academy,” he told me, “is that regardless of what the issue is, when one group is opposing another group, our primary responsibility is to focus on the constitution. Especially in protest situations.”

Time after time in our discussion, he emphasized the community aspects of this issue. Everyone, on all sides, lives and works in the same space. They depend on each other every day to support and uphold the community. Each of them playing different roles and being vital to the community of Denton in their own way. So when conflict arises, it is critical they can speak or even disagree with the same cordiality that a police officer can display while arresting protesters.

“Just because you have interacted with someone in a predictable circumstance before doesn’t mean you know what the outcome will be this time.” That quip, spoken by a worn down yet resolute veteran police officer, serves as a perfect reminder of why the local debate should never be take for granted. If you erect strawmen of the other side, you rob that person of their voice. No person should ever be robbed of that ability. That is the principle that Sergeant Jenkins has instilled into the core of his policing efforts and those around him. That is the principle that everyone, from the CEO to the state senator to the green protester, should revere as an inalienable democratic imperative.

Everyone has a story.

Everyone has a voice.

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