Angeline Cheek is preparing for disaster. The organizer from the Fort Peck reservation in Montana fears that the proposed Keystone XL pipeline could break and spill, destroy her tribe’s water, and desecrate sacred Native American sites.
But environmental catastrophe is not the most immediate threat.
The government has characterized pipeline opponents like her as “extremists” and violent criminals and warned of potential “terrorism,” according to recently released records.
Documents obtained by the ACLU of Montana 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. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency also organized a “field force operations” training to teach “mass-arrest procedures,” “riot-control formations,” and other “crowd-control methods.”
The repeated mass arrests at Standing Rock led to a litany of charges, but hundreds were eventually dismissed due to lack of evidence. Police deployed water cannons, teargas grenades, bean bag rounds and a wide array of weapons in North Dakota.
The ACLU of Montana, which filed a lawsuit this month against the government seeking Keystone records, earlier obtained a DHS report that said pipeline protesters were engaged in “criminal disruptions and violent incidents.”
The report included two past cases of alleged “environmental rights extremists” committing violence.
But the events in question – a 2012 bombing and a 2015 shootout with police – had no links to any environmental protests, said Mike German, a former FBI agent and fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice.
“Treating protest as terrorism is highly problematic,” said German, 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.”
The “terrorist” and “extremist” labels can be used to justify brutality and a militarized operation, said Andrea Carter, an attorney with the Water Protector Legal Collective, a group that has represented Standing Rock defendants.
“It’s a really egregious tactic,” she said, noting that the labels also lay the groundwork for prosecutors to turn low-level misdemeanor cases into federal felony trials. “A lot of it has to do with public relations.”
The Montana documents have also shone a light on the coordination between governments across state lines, raising questions about how extensively law enforcement was devoting resources to Keystone protests before they had materialized.
An email from the Montana fish, wildlife and parks department from earlier this year said state officials had conducted “extensive conversations with North Dakota to learn what worked and what didn’t work” when responding to Dapl demonstrations.
Native Americans know the risks are immense. But the “terrorism” label would not intimidate them, said Leoyla Cowboy, the wife of Little Feather, who was recently sentenced to three years in federal prison for “civil disorder” at Standing Rock.
“As indigenous people, it’s embedded in our DNA. It’s our obligation to stand up.”