Governments are treating environmental protesters as terrorists (from California to Russia)
Anybody with a personal history of protesting or a good resistance library knows that the police often are not friends of Americans’ right of dissent and assembly. And this is especially so when the dissenters are people of color and their allies. Although individual officers may be particularly brutal, this is not a matter of rogue cops exceeding their orders. Police departments aren’t independent operators. They do the bidding of the powers that be. Whether taking action against environmental protests, labor strikes, the civil rights movement, the antiwar and anti-apartheid movements, immigration activists, or other protests of the existing order, police agencies and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have a markedly unsavory record.
This is about much more than direct clashes in the street. Law enforcement attacks have included harassment, threats and intimidation, illegal surveillance, infiltration, acting as agents provocateurs, and outright violence. The FBI used the infamous CoIntelPro, among other things, to turn African American and American Indian activists against one another in ways that led to some murders in the 1960s and early ‘70s. The FBI facilitated the murder of others. (See Fred Hampton).
Often, these attacks on dissent have been aided by private parties ranging from corporate goons hired to go after workers on the picket line in the 1930s to the likes of highly militarized operations like the global security firm TigerSwan at the anti-pipeline protests at Standing Rock in North Dakota in the past couple of years.
Techniques of suppressing protest are always being tweaked and polished.
Will Parrish and Sam Levin at The Guardian report on recently released documents showing that police plan to move aggressively against protesters fighting the Keystone XL pipeline, that conduit indigenous people along its northern route label the “black snake” designed to carry highly polluting tar sands petroleum from Alberta to Texas. If Keystone XL gets final approval, massive demonstrations like those against the Dakota Access Pipeline can be expected:
Documents obtained by the ACLU of Montana and reviewed by The Guardian have renewed concerns from civil rights advocates about the government’s treatment of indigenous activists known as water protectors.
Notably, one record revealed that authorities hosted a recent “anti-terrorism” training session in Montana. […]
“Treating protest as terrorism is highly problematic,” said [Mike German, a former FBI agent and fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice], noting that the US government has long labeled activism as “terrorism”, once claiming that filing public records requests was an “extremist” tactic. “It’s an effective way of suppressing protest activity and creating an enormous burden for people who want to go out and express their concerns.”
They also make note of the fact that Montana authorities are apparently training people to monitor social media posts of anti-pipeline activists. The documents show that there are ties between law enforcement and TransCanada, the company that is building the Keystone XL pipeline.
Law enforcement efforts to suppress active dissent aren’t confined to Montana or the Dakotas.
In August, the Berkeley, California, police posted names and mugshots of protesters arrested during an “alt-right” protest. Levin reported last week that newly obtained emails show the city explicitly targets protesters with mugshot tweets, using “social media to help create a counter-narrative.” It’s only mugshots of “protest-related” arrests that are to be posted on Twitter.
“They are just trying to punish people who haven’t had a trial,” said Blake Griffith, a Democratic Socialists of America activist whose mugshot was posted on Twitter last month. “They don’t really care whether or not we actually did anything wrong. They just care that they look good and that their response looks publicly justified.”
One protocol document officials wrote last year said police should post the name, age, city of residence, charges and booking photos on Twitter, noting that they would be “quickly reprinted across television, online and print media platforms”. Police received more than 8,000 retweets, 11,000 “likes” and 1.7m “impressions” (times people saw the tweets) in one case, the document said.
Berkeley city council members have proposed an ordinance to stop police from posting mugshots on social media unless the arrested individuals pose an immediate public safety threat.
- Related: Jerry Brown has six youths arrested for sitting in his office and demanding a freeze on fossil fuel drilling
Good. But that’s only one instance of one police agency in one city. What’s happening elsewhere in a nation with a history of police and FBI efforts to suppress dissent matters a great deal in an era when the potential for autocratic rule has risen along with resistance to it.
Half a century ago, reformers took on endemic violence by racist law enforcement agencies by forming civilian review boards to oversee police department actions. That seemed like a good idea. But soon most of those boards were made toothless captives of the police forces they were meant to review or were dissolved when nobody was looking. Reviving this approach with safeguards against the boards becoming nothing more than another rubber stamp for misconduct is worth considering.
- Related: Jerry Brown calls me a political terrorist (for opposing his Chevron-penned cap and trade bill)
To reiterate, however, it’s not the uniformed or undercover officers who make the policies and spread the attitudes that allow or command them to suppress protests and undermine dissent. That’s the province of political leaders. And it’s up to us, all of us—whether we’ve never protested even once or have been arrested many times for doing so—to force those leaders to stop screwing around with our democratic rights. Which will obviously mean kicking many of them out of office.