Criminalising Standing Rock

It is not the first time US government has used all means necessary to stifle activism and resistance.

A protesters flies a flag during a stand off with police during a protest of the Dakota Access pipeline near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation near Cannon Ball, North Dakota
A protester in a standoff with police during a protest of the Dakota Access pipeline near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation [Stephanie Keith/Reuters]

The recent revelations of the Intercept, exposing how the US government is treating environmental activism at Standing Rock as an “insurgency”, should not come as a surprise. The Intercept’s investigation reveals that security firm TigerSwan has been working closely with at least five states to target the protesters of the Standing Rock camp as “jihadists”, aiming to destroy and delegitimise the whole movement and those standing in solidarity with it.

But this is not the first time that governments and corporations have used any means necessary to keep the status quo in place. And it won’t be the last.

A long history of criminalising activism

On March 8, 1971, a group of activists known as the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, stole a huge stash of files and passed them on to the media. The most significant element in the stolen materials was a file mentioning the word “COINTELPRO“.

This break-in exposed one of the most secretive programmes put together by the FBI at that time.

Originally created in 1956 to “increase factionalism, cause disruptions and win defections” inside the Communist Party in the US, the COunterINTELligencePROgram slowly diverted most of its resources to target other groups and individuals that the FBI deemed subversive. These included the Black Panthers, the Civil Rights Movements, the feminist movement, the anti-war movement, the anti-colonialist movement, activists from the American Indian Movement and many others.

The programme used methods such as infiltration, psychological warfare, illegal force and harassment to destroy, often from the inside, any form of resistance to the status quo. The assassination of Fred Hampton, one of the leaders of the Black Panther Party, on December 4, 1969, was part of a COINTELPRO operation.

OPINION: North Dakota pipeline protest is a harbinger of many more

While the covert programme officially ended in April 1971, recent history has shown that the FBI and other government agencies have never stopped using the tactics that formed the core of the programme. In fact, quite the opposite has happened and the methods used by governments, institutions and corporations to “pacify” the masses have become more and more sophisticated with time.

A couple of years ago, journalist Will Potter exposed the fact that environmental and animal rights activists were now considered as the number-one domestic threat in the US and are often prosecuted as criminals. He highlighted that this had happened thanks to the concerted lobby efforts by corporations that have promoted the notion of “eco-terrorism”.

History has proven that it takes time, a lot of patience and many sacrifices to achieve radical change, but that at the end of the day, the power is with the many, not with the few.


But the US government is by far not the sole perpetrator of such crimes. Many other countries, often including western “democracies”, are treating concerned citizens in the same manner. A telling example is the way the UK government and police infiltrated the environmental movement to pre-empt environmental action and protests.

Governments have upped their repressive game criminalising whole movements, like the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) and solidarity with refugees’ movements in Europe. Security forces have increased the brutality with which they put down protests, as has happened in France, where a police crackdown on peaceful demonstrations against labour law changes led to dozens of protesters being injured. And overall, there have been broad attempts to delegitimise any form of radical resistance to power across the world.

These are all clear reminders to activists that challenging hegemony will come at a very high price.

It is crucial to understand and treat these actions not as random acts but as part of a broader context of repression and pacification of civil society. There is a global pushback against activism or what some have called “shrinking space“, and this process has taken different forms. The methods used can be pure repression (violence against human rights defenders, attacks on freedom of assembly, movement, speech …) or include more subtle approaches, such as philanthropic protectionism and exclusion of organisations and charities from the banking system.

‘We are not losing’

But everything is not as bleak as it sounds. The fact that governments have to resort to contractors and private companies to do their dirty and often illegal work needs to be understood for what it is.

While they were able, even though secretly, to do this themselves a few decades ago, the actions of many, or sometimes of a few (whistleblowers, for example), have had an impact.

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Over the past few decades, activists, protesters and whistleblowers challenged the hegemonic vision of the world imposed on us by governments, institutions and the corporate media by putting forward the narratives of the “powerless”. They told a different story and made sure that the world listened to what they were saying. Movements such as Occupy, the Indignados and Reclaim the Streets offered a taste of what is possible. And these very real and concrete actions made government programmes such as COINTELPRO nearly impossible.

Even though it might sometimes look like we are, as the human civilisation, going backwards, faced with more racism, bigotry, chauvinism and hatred every day; and even though it often feels like victories are insignificant when compared with defeats and that the balance of power is very much on the side of states and corporations, we are certainly not losing and the fact that we have to face more repressive measures every day means that our enemies are scared and take us very seriously.

History has proven that it takes time, a lot of patience and many sacrifices to achieve radical change, but that at the end of the day, the power is with the many, not with the few.

Frank Barat is coordinator of the War & Pacification programme at the Transnational Institute.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.