6 Ways Government Is Going After Environmental Activists

Thanks in large part to the indigenous-led mass mobilization at Standing Rock, there has been a major shift in public awareness and celebrity support for environmental activism. In turn, the government has gone to new lengths to suppress and criminalize this brand of activism.

With President Trump’s approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, the FBI, along with local law enforcement agencies, could ramp up its attacks and surveillance of environmentalists in the near future. So far, the government methods have been downright chilling: from shooting down media drones in the airspace above protests to introducing laws that equate common protest tactics with domestic terrorism. Here are some of the creepiest ways the government has gone after environmental protesters in recent years:

Standing Rock Protest

1. Law enforcement authorities have partnered with private security companies to surveil activists and control protests.

Evidence of this collaboration was widely documented during last year’s protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Specifically, email communications during a police crackdown on protesters were leaked showing an alliance between the pipeline’s private security firm, the FBI, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, North Dakota’s U.S. attorney’s office, and local law enforcement agencies. Having various government agencies emailing private pipeline security as police attack nonviolent protesters with rubber bullets and water cannons raises major concerns that local law enforcement will only protect corporate financial interests, not the constitutional rights of protesters.

With the upcoming construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, environmental groups and indigenous leaders have clearly stated they will fight construction. Environmental protests against the pipeline are likely to engender the same type of surveillance we saw at Standing Rock — in fact, several local law enforcement authorities have already indicated their plans to prevent a repeat of the Standing Rock protests. We know of at least one meeting in the region between county law enforcement and a private petroleum company, where officials discussed plans to collaborate with federal agencies in monitoring protesters. Given our concerns about another wave of cooperation between our government and private security contractors, last week we submitted a FOIA request asking the government to tell us how they are working with such contractors in anticipation of Keystone XL protests.

Standing Rock Camp

2. Known FBI informants have infiltrated activist spaces and camps.

One FBI informant even pursued a romantic relationship with an indigenous activist. Oglala Lakota activist Red Fawn Fallis was arrested in 2016 during the violent eviction of a main camp at Standing Rock. She was accused of shooting at deputies while she was pinned to the ground by police officers — with a gun that belonged to the FBI informant, Heath Harmon.

There are other instances of law enforcement infiltration of activist groups. After one violent police attack against nonviolent “NoDAPL” protesters, police referenced an FBI informant’s account of a serious injury against a protester, claiming it was self-inflicted.

3. The federal government has implemented “no-fly zones” to black out media coverage during heightened police crackdowns.

For the past several years, the Federal Aviation Administration — an agency tasked with allocating and regulating U.S. airspace — has been misusing its power to institute no-fly zones (also known as “temporary flight restrictions”) over mass protests. We first saw this after the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson. The FAA responded to requests from the police by implementing a 37-square-mile no-fly zone over the protest areas, blocking aerial media coverage for 12 days.

In 2016 at Standing Rock, the FAA instituted no-fly zones during some of the most violent police crackdowns. The bans extended for miles surrounding the protests, blacking out aerial coverage of the protests. These attempts to prevent reporting about protests and policing violate the First Amendment. We told the FAA in both Ferguson and Standing Rock that they should never collaborate with police to silence the media, and they must consult with tribal leaders before instituting no-fly zones on tribal land. They responded to our demands in a letter in 2017, assuring us that our feedback would inform future TFRs.

Standing Rock Camp

4. Both lawmakers and law enforcement agencies are working to characterize indigenous-led nonviolent movements as domestic terrorism.

Specifically, lawmakers are working to enshrine laws that charge environmental activists with “economic terrorism.” Last legislative session, lawmakers in Washington and North Carolina considered such bills.

The government has associated protest activity with terrorism in other spheres as well. A law enforcement investigation led one of the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces to knock on the doors of at least three Standing Rock activists to request interviews without a warrant or subpoena. Law enforcement might be taking cues from its private partners: Leaked documents of the DAPL security firm, which were often shared with police, revealed internal depictions of the NoDAPL movement as a terrorist group, saying they “followed a jihadist insurgency model” and were “an ideologically driven insurgency with a strong religious component.”

5. States are passing “ag-gag” bills to criminalize First Amendment-protected undercover investigations of agricultural facilities.

These bills do a range of things to impede investigations. They make it illegal to record conditions at factory farms; to submit photo or video evidence of animal abuse to law enforcement more than 48 hours after acquiring it (thereby hampering long-term research); and to conceal one’s identity in order to secure entry to an agricultural animal facility.

These bills are designed to intimidate journalists and whistleblowers from investigating conditions that threaten food safety or abuse animals. The ACLU has been challenging these laws in the courts — with some success. The ACLU of Idaho won a partial victory in the Ninth Circuit last month, where the court found the state’s attempt to criminalize concealing one’s identity to enter such a facility to be unconstitutional. We hope to see similar results in Iowa, where the ACLU filed suit against an ag-gag law this past October.

6. The government has sought constitutionally protected Facebook activity.

In a case from March 2017, a county prosecutor sought a search warrant for a NoDAPL Facebook group page. We intervened to quash the search warrant, arguing that it violated the First and Fourth Amendments, and Facebook agreed. After withdrawing their first two warrants, the county prosecutor eventually reached out to federal officials who helped the prosecutor gain access to the Facebook page.

Law enforcement organizations and some elected officials no doubt think they can chill speech and suppress dissent through these scare tactics. The Constitution, however, is on the side of the protesters.

View comments (18)
Read the Terms of Use


Federal officials, especially the DOJ and FBI, should have fidelity to their supreme loyalty oath - Oath of Office. They should be protecting the First Amendment rights of environmentalists - as they agreed to do under their Oath of Office - not violating their oath.

The reason many Americans have lost faith in the integrity of some federal agencies is because of activities that violate their own Oath of Office. The focus should be on the agency top management giving unconstitutional orders to their employees - not thise following orders.

The FBI and DOJ need someone like "Vanita Gupta" to reform their top management - someone with fidelity to their constitutional Oath of Office.


Only those on the "Receiving End" of rights violations really understand the value of our freedoms as prescribed in our Bill of Rights - so we need to legally give those of the authoritarian mindset a dose of their own medicine. it can also be a lot of fun!

For example: decades ago when so-called Conservatives were being liberal with our individual freedoms and privacy, using the same un-American line being used today: "if you have nothing to hide and have done nothing illegal why should you care about privacy?". When the so-called Conservatives back then were trying to confirm a judge, civil libertarians went through the judge's trash and found receipts and records of purchases at the Adult Book & Movie Store. Although the judge-to-be hadn't done anything illegal, he seemed to care that the American public found out about his porn habit.

In that instant that so-called Conservative judge nominee started to embrace American values like the constitutional "right to be left alone" and denounce un-American authoritarianism. This is the only legal way to educate so-called Conservatives on American values - give them a taste of their own medicine!

Another anonymo...

Basically the Standing Rock protesters were treated much worse than the Cliven Bundy bunch. Their rights were assiduously guarded. They got off. Meanwhile the people at Standung Rock were not only guarding Native water, they were trying to guard the water of the WHOLE center of the United States. Cliven Bundy’s gang were polluting and desecrating and they got handled with kid gloves.
It is an offensive level of disparity.
I agree that people of a kidney with Bundy or the federal judge nominee ONLY care about anyone’s rights when theirs are infringed.
They need this lesson repeatedly though. They are like dogs who return to their vomit.

Don't want to s...

Another anonymo...
Since you mentioned that Cliven Bundy bunch got treated with kid gloves, you forgot to mention that him and his supporters were armed. So yes, the Federal Government made a smart move to deescalate the situation NOT to go in and push these people around (and make them martyrs in the process). Blood and guts makes for a box office hit at the theaters, but it's terrible to see in the evening news...

Dr. Timothy Leary

I think the A.C.L.U. censored my last comment here.

Dr. Timothy Leary

Yes, the A.C.L.U. has censored my comments here just because I told someone where they could put that pipe line.

Dr. Nick

Mine too...............................

Rain Pebble

Trump and His Government Need To Reserve Funding On Over Indulging Military To These 'Events'
The More Prescence Of The Forces Insights Further Resent!

You Need To Concentrate On Coppicing Forests Halting Wild Fires. The Extent Keeps Repeating Itself, You Loose Faith From The Reat Of Us


Rain Pebble, you need to learn to write English correctly. No one can understand the gibberish you posted here.


This article is awesome! Props to the author for pointing out these dangerous and now normalized control tactics. I found this really informative and would love to see more of this!


Stay Informed