When the Feds Come Knocking on the Climate Movement’s Doors
by Scott Parkin / Counterpunch
In 2003, my friends and I organized a forest defense campaign against a financial holding company called Maxxam We called the campaign Dirty South Earth First! (DSEF!). Maxxam were the owners of Pacific Lumber, a California based company that was rapidly clear-cutting Northern California’s redwoods for big profit. Maxxam had also hired private security goons that violently extracted tree-sitters non-violently defending those forests. In response, we aggressively targeted not just Maxxam, but individual executives in both their Houston offices and lavish homes. We quickly got the attention of Houston police, the company’s private security team and the federal government.
Years later, through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests (both mine and friends), I found out that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had tracked my air travel, watched my home, listed me as an associate of a “criminal organization,” paid at least one fellow Houston activist to inform on us and most likely reported me to the Australian government while I traveled there resulting in my detention and forced removal from that country as a “national security threat.” Others in DSEF! had similar or worse experiences.
I’d never been arrested or charged with any crime in that campaign, yet organizing bold and effective campaigns against wealthy corporations put me on the government’s blacklist.
Carrying forward with that work, over the past seven plus years, I’ve been an active organizer in the climate movement for both grassroots groups and environmental non-profits. I’ve supported fights against mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia, coal exports in the Northwest, heavy tar sands refining equipment shipments and pipelines in Idaho and Montana and the Keystone XL Pipeline in my home state of Texas and beyond.
The North American direct action movement against the extraction of oil, coal and natural gas has become a beautiful and powerful thing. Our broad-based grassroots movement has organized bold and effective campaigns against the fossil fuel industry.
So naturally, the government wants to stop it.
There’s been no “Green Scare” of the climate movements because, unfortunately for them, we’re open and transparent about who we are, what we oppose and how we’re doing it. They can’t label us “terrorists” as we haven’t advocated for or carried out any acts of violence or property destruction. So, instead the federal government has adopted a low level strategy of surveillance, infiltration and harassment, or, as a civil liberties lawyer explained it to me—“Green Scare Lite.” Agents who are knocking on the doors of climate activists have said they want to make sure everyone is “playing nice in the sandbox” while gathering information and curtailing first and fourth amendment rights wherever and whenever possible.
The Department of Homeland Security has been keeping close eye on the anti-Keystone XL movement seeking to impact both construction and presidential approval. This has also extended to other parts of the climate movement, who’ve been invigorated by new resistance to fossil fuel’s extraction and infrastructure projects.
In the past two months, news of the following incidents has surfaced:
*In June, FOIA documents, obtained by Nebraska activists, revealed that TransCanada was briefing local law enforcement and the Nebraska Information Fusion Center (the state level branch of the Dept. of Homeland Security) activities of the Tar Sands Blockade (TSB), Nebraska opponents to the Keystone XL Pipeline and others opposed to the pipeline (including myself). The presentation included details on TSB tactics, trainers and individual activists, as well as misleading information about “tree-spiking,” “monkey-wrenching” and “eco-sabotage.” Furthermore, TransCanada provided suggestions for possible charges that police and prosecutors could use against activists.
*In the Pacific Northwest, the FBI has begun a series of “knock and talks” to activists in Seattle and Portland. In Seattle, they’ve visited at least ten climate activists associated with Seattle Rising Tide at their homes asking about local opposition to tar sands development and northwest coal exports. One member of Seattle Rising Tide was detained by federal customs officials at the Miami airport while returning from a family vacation in the Caribbean. Authorities refused to release him until the activist surrendered computer and smartphone passwords. In Portland, a local Rising Tide member’s family received a FBI visit with questions about that person’s whereabouts and activities.
*Adam Federman reported in Earth Island Journal that undercover investigators infiltrated an Oklahoma tar sands resistance camp in March. Officers with the Bryan County, OK sheriff’s department drafted detailed reports on organizer’s plans to blockade a Keystone XL pipeline construction site as well as on the character of the protestors themselves. The investigators thwarted the camp’s planned action by obtaining sensitive information about the action location. Federman also reported on TransCanada briefings and email exchanges with intelligence analysts with the Oklahoma Information Fusion Center.
*In Maryland, anti-fracking activists were visited by individuals identifying themselves as members of the “Joint Terror Task Force” with questions about a July Earth First! gathering and action in North Carolina. At that action, anti-extraction activists successfully disrupted operations at a manufacturing facility linked to the natural gas industry.
The focus on building a more powerful community-rooted movement is the antidote to repression. Environmental rebellions against tar sands extraction and the Keystone XL pipeline, fracking, mountaintop removal coal mining, and in Indigenous territories in the U.S. and Canada have spread like wildfire. It’s literally almost every day that action is taken by climate, anti-extraction and Indigenous activists. This insurrection is being led by the communities themselves, not professional organizers or political strategists for one party or the other.
Years of the bold and effective organizing has created a new political space. Earlier this year, I penned in an article, “Making Green a Threat Again,” that the politics of the climate movement had shifted to a new rebel energy:
“Fortunately, the rebel energy is alive and well in today’s climate movement. Outside of Washington D.C., grassroots activists, direct action organizers, smaller environmental, faith-based and student groups, rank and file Sierra Club members and environmental and climate justice groups have mobilized a very different climate movement from the air conditioned offices of the Beltway Greens.
As a result, middle of the road groups are adopting new approaches such as corporate campaigning, civil disobedience and even sharing resources with environmental justice and direct action groups. Furthermore, we’re seeing corporate media outlets report on our struggles with new enthusiasm.
*In February, the Sierra Club suspended its century long policy banning civil disobedience to stop the Keystone XL pipeline allowing its executive director Michael Brune and board chair Allison Chen to be arrested at the White House with 50 other celebrities, notable notables and members from frontline communities.
*Since April, 75,000 people have signed the Keystone XL Pledge of Resistance, led by Credo Action, Rainforest Action Network and the Other 98%, committing to participate in non-violent civil disobedience to stop the pipeline.
*David Letterman and Stephen Colbert use their late night soapboxes to rail on fracking in the northeast.
*Radical groups like the Tar Sands Blockade regularly break into national and global media cycles with their campaigns. They’ve been featured on the front page of the New York Times, in Rolling Stone and on the Colbert Report.
Despite these shifts, much of the environmental establishment remains very supportive of Obama’s agenda and often assumes best intentions on his part. Flush with money, resources and media attention, it remains unclear whether they would provide support for non-violent grassroots climate activists targeted by Obama’s surveillance and harassment state. Thus far, their response has been disappointing.
My friends and I formed Dirty South Earth First! because we wanted to challenge corporations with a campaign that yielded more results than signing an online petition or holding a sign in front of a nameless office building. We were tired of a formulaic response to politics as usual failing eco-systems, communities and our comrades resisting at the point of destruction.
We upped our game with mixed results and received our fair share of scrutiny and repression. Similarly, today, the climate movement has upped its game in fighting mines and pipelines and now the FBI is showing up at our doorsteps again. Billy Bragg once said “If you’ve got a blacklist, I want to be on it.” With a hat tip to Billy, if being part of a bold and effective movement puts us on their blacklists, I say “bring it.”
Scott Parkin is an organizer with Rainforest Action Network, Rising Tide North America and the Ruckus Society.