14. FBI Surveilled Peaceful Climate Change Protesters

by Project Censored
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After three participants in a nonviolent protest at a BP oil refinery in Indiana were arrested in May 2016, the FBI opened a file on them, the Guardian reported in December 2018. The Indiana event was part of 350.org’s Break Free from Fossil Fuels campaign, which engaged more than 30,000 people on six continents in what it described as the largest coordinated act of civil disobedience in the fight against climate change. Like Jonas Magram, Thom Krystofiak, and Inga Frick in Indiana, many of those nonviolent protestors were arrested for trespassing, or for blocking rail access to refineries.

As Adam Federman reported for the Guardian, “The FBI is prohibited from investigating groups or individuals solely for their political beliefs but has been criticized in the past for treating non-violent civil disobedience as a form of terrorism.” The subject of the FBI file on Magram, Krystofiak, and Frick is categorized by the FBI as a “Sensitive Investigative Matter,” a label, Federman explained, that often refers to cases involving political organizations which “therefore require a higher level of scrutiny.” One of the FBI documents, catalogued by the agency as part of a related domestic terrorism case and obtained by the Guardian through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, stated that “350.org are referenced in multiple investigations and assessments for their planned protests and disruptions.”

Federman wrote that in 2015 the Guardian revealed that the FBI had “violated its own rules” by failing to obtain the approval required to conduct its investigation into Texas activists campaigning against the Keystone XL pipeline. That investigation, Federman summarized, continued for more than a year and “swept up numerous activists including one who later learned he was on a US government watchlist for domestic flights.”

Mike German, a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice and a former FBI agent, told the Guardian that FBI tracking of the three people arrested for civil disobedience in Indiana was “quite troubling.” Absent information suggesting a planned act of violence, German said, there was little justification for creating such a file. The founder of 350.org, Bill McKibben, told the Guardian, “Trying to deal with the greatest crisis humans have stumbled into shouldn’t require being subjected to government surveillance.” However, McKibben observed, “when much of our government acts as a subsidiary of the fossil fuel industry, it may be par for the course.”

An April 2019 report published by In These Times suggests the extent to which the oil industry seeks to enlist state government and to co-opt local law enforcement in order to protect itself from opposition. Sarah Lazare and Simon Davis-Cohen reported that in at least seven states “the oil industry has backed critical infrastructure bills that criminalize pipeline protests.”

Drawing lessons from the protests at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation against the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016, fossil fuel industry associations began urging state lawmakers to support legislation that would define trespassing on energy plants and pipelines as felonies, Lazare and Davis-Cohen reported. The industry has publicly “supported, lobbied for, or testified on behalf of” critical infrastructure bills in Iowa, Illinois, Louisiana, Minnesota, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Wyoming. Industry-based bills have passed in Iowa, Louisiana, North Dakota, and Oklahoma, and no fewer than eleven critical infrastructure bills have been introduced in 2019. Lazare and Davis-Cohen noted that fifteen people who protested the Bayou Bridge Pipeline were facing felony charges, punishable by as much as five years in prison and fines of $1,000, under Louisiana’s new law. The model legislation for the critical infrastructure bills was developed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

In effect, Lazare and Davis-Cohen wrote, the oil industry is “working with the government to redefine criminality and then using that definition to lock up its opponents.”

Lazare and Davis-Cohen also reported that the line between police and privately-hired security guards is “blurring.” In 2013, for example, Kinder Morgan hired off-duty police officers from a Pennsylvania department to “deter protests” in order to avoid “costly delays” at a controversial gas pipeline construction site. As the Earth Island Journal reported, “The company requested that the officers, though officially off-duty, be in uniform and marked cars.” More recently, Lazare and Davis-Cohen reported that some of the arrests in the Bayou Bridge Pipeline protests were made by off-duty police officers hired as guards by Energy Transfer Partners, the company responsible for building the pipeline.

Referencing the Guardian’s reporting on FBI surveillance of activists who protested the Keystone XL pipeline or participated in the 350.org Break Free from Fossil Fuels campaign, Lazare and Davis-Cohen noted antecedents in the bureau’s COINTELPRO program, which targeted the Black Power and American Indian movements in the 1950s and 1960s because of their revolutionary potential. “Sectors of the growing climate movement, with their goal of upending one of the world’s most powerful industries, likely stir similar fears—a sign of their effectiveness,” Lazare and Davis-Cohen wrote.

As of May 2019, the corporate media have provided no coverage of the issues raised in Adam Federman’s Guardian report or Sarah Lazare and Simon Davis-Cohen’s article for In These Times.

Adam Federman, “Revealed: FBI Kept Files on Peaceful Climate Change Protesters,” The Guardian, December 13, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/dec/13/fbi-climate-change-protesters-iowa-files-monitoring-surveillance-.

Sarah Lazare and Simon Davis-Cohen, “Fossil Fuel Companies are Enlisting Police to Crack Down on Protesters,” In These Times, April 16, 2019, http://inthesetimes.com/article/21821/fossil-fuel-companies-back-critical-infrastructure-bills-pipeline-protests.

Student Researcher: Melissa Reed (College of Marin)

Faculty Evaluator: Susan Rahman (College of Marin)