Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Brings Activist Spirit to Willamette

The U.S. has good environmental laws in place, but these laws are often not enforced, environmental activist and attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr. told a group of students Friday during a visit to Willamette University.

"Environmental crime is real crime," he said during an informal meeting with environmental science and politics students before delivering the Dempsey Lecture on Environmental Issues Friday night. "Oftentimes, federal agencies don't treat it like real crime. They call it 'white collar mischief,' and then they don't do anything about it."

Kennedy showed students his fiery brand of activism as he described the history of Hudson Riverkeeper, for whom he is chief prosecuting attorney. Riverkeeper -- started in the 1960s by small commercial fishermen who were upset about "corporate entities robbing them of the Hudson River" that had long been their resource -- led a successful fight to restore the river by tracking down polluters and prosecuting them under the law.

"We're a law enforcement organization," Kennedy said. "When people are violating the law by polluting public waterways, we step in to act. The waterways in Oregon and elsewhere are not owned by the governor, the legislature or the fisheries people. They're owned by the public. You have the right to go out to the river, pull a fish out and take it home to feed your family. If someone is polluting the river so it's not safe for you to take that fish, that's an act of theft against you."

Kennedy is known for his aggressive approach against entities whose policies accelerate pollution. His 2004 book, Crimes Against Nature: How George W. Bush and His Corporate Pals are Plundering the Country and Hijacking our Democracy, calls into question the environmental policies of the U.S. He is also a clinical professor and supervising attorney at the Environmental Litigation Clinic at Pace University School of Law, and co-host of Ring of Fire on Air America Radio.

During his evening lecture, Kennedy took on everything from the recent Bush administration to corporate media to the coal industry as he touted the possibilities of alternative energy and urged government to invest in environmental policies.

"We don't have to choose between good environmental policy and good economic policy -- it's a false choice," he said. "What's happening now in Washington, D.C., is some of the most exciting stuff I've seen in the 25 years I've been involved with these issues, because there's an understanding in the new administration that the path out of the recession is a new green energy future."

Kennedy also noted the importance of protecting the planet because "we understand that nature enriches us."

"My advocacy has not been about saving the birds and the fishes, but about recognizing we're protecting nature because nature is the infrastructure of our communities."

Kennedy's appearance was sponsored by the Dempsey Foundation and the Center for Sustainable Communities at Willamette University (