In early 2016, Indigenous activists on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in so-called North Dakota began protesting construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), a 1,172-mile-long oil pipeline that, when completed, would carry oil through four states and beneath two major rivers. The grassroots protests targeted the pipeline, the company behind it (Energy Transfer Partners, or ETP), and anyone funding the project. By April of 2016, the protests had evolved into full-time encampments on and off the reservation, supported by vibrant, effective, and headline-grabbing actions across the country and around the world. These actions included marches, letter-writing campaigns, divestment campaigns, bank shutdowns, elaborate banner drops, blockades, and sabotage of ETP property and pipeline construction equipment.
Thanks to police armed with assault rifles, the encampments were eventually cleared. Thanks to Energy Transfer Partners' endless desire to profit off the exploitation of land, water, and people, the pipeline was completed and is currently pumping oil.
Despite their apparent victory, Energy Transfer Partners came out of the experience bitter and vengeful. The #NoDAPL movement was one of the most inspiring environmental events of the last few decades. It brought thousands of people to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in opposition to the pipeline. It has been called the largest gathering of Indigenous tribes in over a century. It garnered international attention and raised awareness of the dangers of pipelines and the importance of Indigenous sovereignty. And it cost ETP lots and lots of money.
Energy Transfer Partners—and their partners, Energy Transfer Equity—decided to fight back against this grassroots uprising with a lawsuit against the environmental non-profit Greenpeace, the Netherlands-based international NGO support group BankTrack, and the radical environmental movement known as Earth First!.
It is because of the allegations against Earth First! that I became aware of the lawsuit. I am an editor of the Earth First! Journal, a magazine and website that reports on and supports the 38-year-old international movement called Earth First!. Earth First! is a banner, or a set of beliefs, that people anywhere can organize around. It was started in opposition to traditional non-profit environmental groups that many radicals felt were selling out the environment. It has changed and grown a lot over the last few decades, but throughout its existence it has been a leaderless movement that doesn't compromise with Earth-destroying corporations, believes in biocentrism (the idea that all living things have inherent value outside of the resource-value ascribed by humans), and uses direct action to defend the wild. The Earth First! Journal is nearly as old as the Earth First! movement. It is a tool for keeping Earth First!ers around the world connected and aware of each others' campaigns, and for spreading radical environmentalism to a broader audience.
Energy Transfer Partners' complaint against Greenpeace, BankTrack, and Earth First! essentially argues that every group opposed to the Dakota Access Pipeline is involved in a secret underground “Enterprise” that purposefully misleads the public about the dangers of pipelines and other environmentally dangerous projects in order to profit from the panic that ensues. Their specific claims against Greenpeace and BankTrack mostly revolve around the idea that these organizations knowingly spread misinformation—“misinformation” like the fact that Indigenous people in the area didn't want the Dakota Access Pipeline built and that pipelines often spill and contaminate drinking water.
Their claims against Earth First! are quite different. Basically, they argue that Earth First! (without ever saying who “Earth First!” actually is) used $500,000 of “seed money” to plant eco-terrorists among the #NoDAPL protesters in order to incite terrorism and to start a drug-selling ring on the reservation. Because Earth First! is an amorphous movement and a philosophy, not a group with membership, ETP didn't know who to serve with the lawsuit. In the end, they sent it to the office of the Earth First! Journal, even though the Journal is never mentioned in the lawsuit and cannot represent an entire movement. The Center for Constitutional Rights is representing the Earth First! Journal in this situation.
I am not going to spend too much time explaining why these allegations are preposterous, except to say how disgusting it is that ETP's lawyers wrote hundreds of pages of lies that attempt to take all of the agency and power away from the Indigenous people that shook this Earth-destroying company to the bone. This movement was powerful, important, based on facts, and Indigenous-led, and nothing ETP says can erase that fact.
Were Earth First!ers at Standing Rock? I wasn’t there, but I would find it very surprising if they weren’t. There might not have been folks waving “Earth First!” banners in any of the footage, but that's the point—if Earth First!ers went to Standing Rock it would have been to support the Indigenous folks who were trying to protect their land, water, and families, not to take credit or run the show. I also assume that Earth First!ers were involved in shutting down banks, dropping banners, and taking direct action in support of the #NoDAPL movement around the world. That's what any individual willing to risk their own life and freedom does when the Earth and its people are threatened.
This lawsuit actually reveals very little about Earth First!, but it says a lot about companies like Energy Transfer Partners and the government agencies that protect them. Anyone who has been to an Earth First! or anarchist demonstration knows the drill: like aliens landing on a foreign planet, police arrive armed and demanding to speak to our “leader.” When we tell them, truthfully, that we have no leader, they say something like, “So that's how you're gonna play it, huh?” This is because horizontal, community-based organizing sounds impossible to police, who spend their lives reinforcing authority through violence. Similarly, Energy Transfer Partners and Kasowitz—the law firm representing ETP in this case—simply cannot fathom that there are people out there who would put themselves in harm's way to do something good in the world. The conspiratorial “enterprise” alleged in Kasowitz's and ETP's complaint was fabricated not only as a legal means to attack anyone who opposed DAPL, but also to ease their own fragile consciences. If they can prove in court that activists don't actually care about the environment or people, then they don't have to question their own selfishness and apathy.
This lawsuit parallels the law enforcement tactics used against #NoDAPL activists throughout the campaign. Red Fawn Fallis, an Oglala Sioux activist, was arrested at Standing Rock for allegedly firing a handgun during a protest. It was later revealed that the handgun in question actually belonged to an FBI Informant . Sophia Wilansky, another protester at Standing Rock, had her arm almost completely torn off by shrapnel from a police concussion grenade. Yet the FBI suggests that she did this to herself with homemade explosives, despite having no evidence to back up the claim. ETP's and the State's go-to response to accusations against them is to try and flip the narrative to attack their accusers.
So what can we do in the face of rambling lawsuits full of unsupported conspiracy theories calling grassroots activists “terrorists”? We can keep fighting, and ramp up our efforts. These tactics are meant to scare us, so we must be courageous. They are meant to divide us, so we must stick together. They are meant to rewrite history, so we must share our stories far and wide. They are meant to stop us from taking action against oppression, so we must encourage folks to sabotage the oppressors and defeat the efforts of companies like Energy Transfer Partners at every opportunity. Because, given enough time, this ETP pipeline will leak, and so will their next one—and I-told-you-so's can't bring back prairies or re-build livelihoods.
And, we must lend support to the activists who are still doing or facing time for their actions to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline. Please send letters of support to:
Red Fawn Fallis, Heart of America Correctional Center, 110 Industrial Road, Rugby, ND 58368, USA
Michael “Little Feather” Giron, Heart of America Correction Center, 110 Industrial Road, Rugby, ND 58368, USA
Keep an eye out for updates on these activists who are not in custody but still facing charges:
Krow/Twig/Katie Kloth, Chase Iron Eyes, Bravo1 (Brennon Nastacio), Ruby Montoya, and Jessica Reznicek.
For the Wild,
Earth First! Journal Collective