Legacies of Repression
The Government’s War on Indigenous and Earth Liberation Movements
Repression is the State’s method of protecting itself and its authority from political challenges by destroying or “neutralizing” organizations, movements, or ideas that threaten their power. Repression is sometimes a response to crisis and sometimes just a method of preserving normalcy, but it always serves to limit political action and dialogue.
Because they challenge the status quo, movements for progressive and radical social change have always faced political repression from the State. In particular we will be sharing histories of Indigenous movements and environmental/earth liberation movements that have been targeted for repression over the previous half century. Understanding this history can help us learn how to fight back and resist!
Image credit: Rob Wilson Photography
“Disrupt, Misdirect, Discredit, and Neutralize”: COINTELPRO Versus the American Indian Movement
In many ways, state repression of Indigenous movements is inseparable from and pales in comparison to the larger projects of colonization and genocide against Indigenous communities. But in modern times, repression is the State’s preferred weapon against the communities, movements, and people who dare to organize resistance to that colonization and genocide.
In the 1960s, all manner of national liberation and freedom struggles experienced a surge in momentum and visibility, including Indigenous movements. In the Puget Sound area, native tribes fought for their right to fish their ancestral waters and to protect it from pollution, organizing protests, “fish-in” civil disobedience actions, and even taking up arms to defend their fishing rights. The National Indian Youth Council formed in 1961 to support these struggles. In upstate New York, the Tuscarora Nation fought the expropriation of their land to build a reservoir. In 1969, the Indians of All Tribes (IOAT) occupied Alcatraz Island to assert rights to ancestral lands as granted by the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie. The occupation of Alcatraz lasted for 14 months and established new precedents in federal court in regards to treaty rights for Indigenous people as well as igniting new resistance within Indigenous communities.
In 1968, the American Indian Movement (AIM) formed in Minneapolis, modeled loosely on the Black Panther Party and articulating a broad and militant vision of Indigenous sovereignty and resistance. AIM had a talent for dramatic and attention-grabbing actions that crystallized the colonial oppression they were fighting against. On Thanksgiving Day 1970, they occupied the replica Mayflower ship and painted Plymouth Rock red. The next year they briefly occupied Mount Rushmore on the Fourth of July and later occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) office Washington D.C. In 1972 they organized the cross-country Trail of Broken Treaties march that ended with a second occupation of the BIA office in DC. Most famously, in 1973, AIM occupied the town of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
Bold actions like these helped grow AIM’s popularity in native communities, but also drew the ire of law enforcement, particularly the FBI. Since the mid 1950s, the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) had engaged in a secret and illegal war against political dissent and leftist political movements in the United States. COINTELPRO explicitly sought to maintain “the existing social and political order,” by “exposing, disrupting, misdirecting, discrediting, or otherwise neutralizing” people and organizations that the FBI believed to be threats to the internal security of the United States. Throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, COINTELPRO targeted the Civil Rights Movements and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; the anti-war movement and the New Left student movement; the Black Power Movement; the Puerto Rican independence movement; and many others.
In the early 1970s, COINTELPRO began to focus on AIM and the larger Red Power movement. Tactics that the FBI used included harassment arrests, malicious prosecution, informants and provocateurs, “bad jacketing,” direct violence, and grand jury investigations.
Harassment arrests include both arrests on bogus charges, as well as arrests on petty charges that are ordinarily ignored in non-political situations (e.g. jaywalking, failure to disperse, etc.) but intended to intimidate and harass political organizers. In addition, political activists are often singled out for more serious charges by ambitious prosecutors looking to send a message. One FBI memo revealed a plan in which local police would put AIM leaders “under close scrutiny, and arrest them on every possible charge until they could no longer make bail.”
For example AIM’s Wounded Knee occupation resulted in 562 arrests but only 15 convictions. Several cases were dismissed by a federal judge after learning that the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office had been hiding evidence that could have proved the AIM members’ innocence. Suppression of evidence also played a role in the conviction of Leonard Peltier for the shooting of two FBI agents on Pine Ridge in 1976. A single AIM leader, Russell Means, was charged with 37 felonies and 3 misdemeanors between 1973 and 1976, but convicted of only a single charge that resulted from his “illegal” activity in the courtroom while defending himself against the other charges.
Federal grand jury investigations also played a role in the repressive legal strategy against AIM. Following a 1975 shootout on Pine Ridge between AIM and the FBI, several federal grand juries were convened in Rapid City, to which a wide net was cast in subpoenaing over 50 witnesses. Noncooperation was almost uniform amongst those who were subpoenaed. However, the U.S. Attorney chose a strategy of targeting only the potential witnesses they perceived to be the weakest or most vulnerable to single out for incarceration until they chose to testify.
It’s not known exactly how many paid informants became involved in AIM at various times, nor how many AIM participants provided information to the FBI. However, one of the primary informants and provocateurs was Douglas Durham, a white man pretending to be native who worked his way into AIM’s inner circle. He became AIM’s National Security Director, and was involved in the legal team called Wounded Knee Legal Defense/Offense Committee (WKLDOC). In addition to providing the FBI with information (sometimes true, other times exaggerated or fabricated) about AIM’s activities, including legal defense strategies, Durham also worked to sow distrust, suspicion, and conflict within AIM. He was instrumental in spreading rumors that John Arbuckle, Carter Camp, and Anna Mae Aquash, three dedicated AIM members, were informants or making deals with the FBI—a process often called “bad jacketing” or “snitch jacketing.” Aquash was one of the first people to suspect Durham’s involvement with the FBI, and was herself continually harassed and threatened by the FBI who sought her cooperation. Aquash also outed Durham for abusive behaviors towards women within the movement and tried to help a young woman dating Durham, Jancita Eagle Deer, to leave the relationship. Eagle Deer was killed during a hit and run on a rural Nebraska road, she was last seen with Durham.
In addition to the internal division and strife caused by such rumors, they also led to violence. Camp shot AIM member Clyde Bellecourt in the stomach for participating in the rumors of Camp’s FBI involvement. More tragically, Aquash was found murdered on the Pine Ridge Reservation, for which several AIM members were convicted almost 30 years later. The FBI’s targeted harassment and attacks combined with a macho leadership culture to literally tore AIM apart.
This repression didn’t end in the 1970s. In 2002, Colorado AIM leader Glenn Morris learned that he was among the people targeted for political surveillance by the Denver Police Department. While the so-called “spy files” included thousands of individuals and organizations, Morris’ file, at over 100 pages, was longer than that of any other individual, and the AIM file was longer than that of any other organization. Over the previous decade, police had infiltrated AIM meetings and parked outside Morris’ house writing down the license plates of anyone who came to visit him. Incredibly, the police had received a tip that Morris and AIM leader Russell Means were potentially being targeted for assassination, but never told either of them.
For additional information on the FBI’s campaign to destroy the American Indian Movement, one of the best books on the subject is Agents of Repression by Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall.
“The Green Scare”: Repression of the Environmental and Earth Liberation Movements
Since environmental movements emerged several decades ago, companies seeking to protect profits and investments, along with the governments that exist to protect them, have always sought to undermine these movements. This repression has reached new levels since the FBI declared in 2005 that environmental, earth liberation, and animal rights movements were the “no. 1 domestic terrorism threat” in the United States. Never mind that environmental groups had never hurt or killed anyone, or that right-wing and fascist groups, by comparison, had killed hundreds over the previous decade. The underlying message was clear: corporate profits took priority over human lives, and movements which may curtail those profits in the name of the earth must be criminalized, disrupted, and destroyed.
Since then, industry has increasingly collaborated with sympathetic legislators and bureaucrats to write and propose new laws targeting environmental and animal rights activism at both the state and national level. For example, the federal Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) makes it a terrorism offense to engage in act that either “damages or causes the loss of any real or personal property” or “places a person in reasonable fear” of injury and is done “for the purpose of damaging or interfering with the operations of an animal enterprise.” Such broad language could easily cover all manner of civil disobedience and protest activities.
Even when special laws targeting environmental protest are not in place or applicable, environmental activists have been subject to malicious prosecution for even non-confrontational actions. In 2013, two environmental activists in Oklahoma were arrested for hanging a glittery banner to protest a local energy company involved in tar sands oil extraction. They were initially charged with felony Terrorism Hoax charges under the theory that the glitter was intended to alarm and frighten the public. The charges were later reduced and both participants were ultimately acquitted, but they spent over two years embroiled in the legal system for engaging in political speech to defend the earth. Journalists who were covering the case obtained documents showing that the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, TransCanada Corporation, and the Oklahoma City Police had strategized ways to prosecute environmental activists as terrorists.
As part of a wider counter-terrorism strategy since 2001, the FBI has engaged in numerous sting operations to catch (or some might say entrap) would-be “eco-terrorists.” In one case, paid FBI informant “Anna” manipulated three other individuals into agreeing to a vague plot to bomb several environmentally destructive targets in California. The more the group came apart through indecision, conflict, and disinterest, the more Anna pushed, prodded, and coerced them to stay together and keep moving forward, just far enough for the FBI to have they case they needed in court. The one non-cooperating defendant, Eric McDavid, lost at trial on conspiracy charges, despite a strong entrapment defense. He was sentenced to 22 years in prison, but was released after 9 year when it was revealed that prosecutors had hidden evidence of Anna manipulating McDavid’s romantic interest in her to keep him involved.
Numerous environmental activists have also been subjected to harassment by grand jury investigations over the previous decades. Some have spent months in jail for refusing to cooperate. Craig Rosebraugh, a former spokesperson for the Earth Liberation Front, was served 8 grand jury subpoenas in almost a decade, but never once cooperated or divulged information about other activists.
Infiltration and surveillance of environmental movements has become almost routine. In one absurd example, the FBI approached a young activist in 2008 offering to pay him to infiltrate “vegan potlucks” and report back about all the “terrorist” activity they assumed was going on at such gatherings. In another instance, reminiscent of the dirty tricks of the COINTELPRO era, a 2005 FBI memo discusses the possibility of planting rumors in the animal rights movement that certain activists are informants. The memo goes on to state that would be “no risk of violence to these persons about whom these false rumors may be started as most of the animal rights people are also strict advocates of nonviolence against human persons,” exposing the true rationale for the targeting of such movements: not preventing violence, but protecting profits.
One of the best books with more information about the “Green Scare” is Green is the New Red by Will Potter.
In a country built on colonialism, genocide, and the commercial exploitation of the earth, it should be little surprise that the State seeks to repress and destroy movements that dare to resist this oblivion. The history of this repression is often disturbing and distressing to many—that’s part of the point; fear encourages people to stay home, stay in line, and not speak up. But understanding this history gives us better tools to effectively stand up together and struggle for a future that is free of these oppressive legacies.
At Standing Rock there has been a coming together of people from Indigenous communities and movements for liberation alongside those who are engaged in movements for the protection and liberation of the Earth. This coalescing resistance is powerful. This powerful resistance is a threat to colonialism, genocide and the commercial exploitation of the earth. There are, at the time of writing, nearly 800 Water Protectors facing criminal charges, six Indigenous warriors facing federal felony charges and a grand jury convened to investigate the activities and connections of those who have resisted the Dakota Access Pipeline. While this can certainly feel overwhelming, we are all standing on a rich and vibrant history of resistance to state repression! Our ancestors stand with us as well.
Our solidarity is stronger than their repression; we can fight back and we can win!