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Police Intimidation: From Dalton Trumbo to Deep Green Resistance

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Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Homeland Security agents have contacted more than a dozen members of Deep Green Resistance (DGR), a radical environmental group, including one of its leaders, Lierre Keith, who said she has been the subject of two visits from the FBI at her home.

The FBI’s most recent contact with a DGR member occurred Jan. 8 when two FBI agents visited Rachael “Renzy” Neffshade at her home in Pittsburgh, Pa. The FBI agents began the visit by asking her questions about a letter she had sent several months earlier to Marius Mason, an environmental activist who was sentenced in 2009 to almost 22 years in prison for arson and property damage.

Neffshade told CounterPunch she refused to answer any questions from the FBI agents. Based on the line of inquiry, Neffshade concluded the FBI agents were not necessarily looking into gathering further information about Mason. “It seemed like they were pursuing an investigation into me, but who knows? I didn’t answer any of their questions,” she said. “It’s important to remain silent to law enforcement as an activist. It is a vital part of security culture.”

DGR, formed about four years ago, requires its members to adhere to what the group calls a “safety culture” in order to reduce the amount of paranoia and fear that often comes with radical activism. On its website, DGR explains why it is important not to talk to police agents: “It doesn’t matter whether you are guilty or innocent. It doesn’t matter how smart you are. Never talk to police officers, FBI agents, Homeland Security, etc. It doesn’t matter if you believe you are telling police officers what they already know. It doesn’t matter if you just chit chat with police officers. Any talking to police officers, FBI agents, etc. will almost certainly harm you or others.”

Keith, along with Derrick Jensen and Aric McKay, co-authored a book published in 2011, Deep Green Resistance, on which the DGR group is largely based. DGR describes itself as an “aboveground organization that uses direct action in the fight to save our planet.” On its website, DGR states there is a need for a separate “underground that can target the strategic infrastructure of industrialization.”

In the “Deep Green Resistance” book, the authors ask, “What if there was a serious aboveground resistance movement combined with a small group of underground networks working in tandem?”

“[T]he undergrounders would engage in limited attacks on infrastructure (often in tandem with aboveground struggles), especially energy infrastructure, to try to reduce fossil fuel consumption and overall industrial activity,” the authors write in the book. “The overall thrust of this plan would be to use selective attacks to accelerate collapse in a deliberate way, like shoving a rickety building.”

In speeches and writings, Jensen, a co-leader of DGR, often ponders this question: “Every morning when I wake up I ask myself whether I should write or blow up a dam.” He also has argued about the necessity of using any means necessary “to stop this culture from killing the planet.” Jensen said he has not been questioned by the FBI about his involvement with DGR. He is also unaware of any DGR members who have been arrested for their work with the group.

In late 2014 and early 2015, the FBI contacted about a dozen DGR members either by telephone or through in-person visits. Max Wilbert, a professional photographer and one of the founding members of DGR, said the FBI contacted him on his cell phone during this period. “I immediately said that I wasn’t going to answer any questions and hung up the phone,” Wilbert told CounterPunch. “This is the best way to deal with this sort of government repression. As soon as they know that you will answer questions, they will keep coming after you.” If activists refuse to answer questions, the FBI or other police agencies are more likely to leave the person alone, he said.

In September 2015, Wilbert was among a group of DGR members detained at the U.S.-Canada border as they were on their way to attend a speech by author Chris Hedges in Vancouver, British Columbia. The group was eventually denied entry into Canada.

Wilbert said the Canadian border guards seemed to be searching for a reason to deny the DGR members entry. After focusing on some women’s self-defense gear in the car (some people in the vehicle were planning to offer a free class on self-defense in British Columbia), the border guards’ questions started turning to each person’s activism.

Making sure he was honest with the officers, Wilbert told the Canadian border guards that he had volunteered to take photographs of Hedges’ scheduled speech. “They said that they suspected I was entering the country to work illegally,” he said.

After getting turned back by the Canadian guards, the vehicle’s occupants faced additional scrutiny by U.S. border agents. At the U.S. border, the questions became much more political in nature. The U.S. guards asked Wilbert and his colleagues about the groups they belonged to and the ideas that these groups promoted. “Officers from the Canadian side even came over and spoke with the U.S. officers about us,” he said.

U.S. border guards confiscated Wilbert’s laptop computer. “Under U.S. law, they can legally copy your entire hard drive and keep the contents for something like 30 days,” he said. After a few hours, the border guards returned the computer. But Wilbert chose to get rid of the laptop after the search because he was concerned the government agents had tampered with it.

The Department of Homeland Security also has demonstrated an interest in the environmental group. DGR member Deanna Meyer, who lives in Colorado, was asked by a DHS agent during a visit to her home if she would be interested in “forming a liaison,” according to a Sept. 30, 2015, article in Earth Island Journal. The agent reportedly told Meyer he wanted to “head off any injuries or killing of people that could happen by people you know.” Meyer refused to cooperate with the DHS agent.

Wilbert views the federal police agencies’ ongoing actions against DGR members as harassment and intimidation. “It makes a mockery of free speech and democracy. We may advocate for radical and revolutionary ideas, but our work is legal. We are nonviolent. We are peaceful people,” he said.

The federal government’s treatment of DGR members is similar in some ways to how political activists were treated during the Red Scare era of the 1950s, contended Wilbert, who noted he is friends with a family member of Dalton Trumbo, the late-blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter. Trumbo and his family faced government surveillance, blacklisting and intimidation. Pointing to Trumbo and other victims of the McCarthyite period, Wilbert emphasized these tactics are not new.

“This government uses intimidation and violence because these tactics are brutally effective. For me and the people I work with, we expect pushback,” Wilbert said. “That doesn’t make it easy, but in a way, this sort of attention validates the fact that our strategy represents a real threat to the system of power in this country. They’re scared of us because we have a plan to hit them where it hurts.”

The police scrutiny of DGR members is continuing at the same time local and federal police agencies maintain a hands-off approach to the takeover of a federal government installation in eastern Oregon by an armed right-wing militia. Some of the militia members claim they would be willing to kill if police attempted to end their occupation of the federal wildlife refuge.

If environmental activists staged an armed occupation of a coal-fired power plant, coal export terminal, or hydroelectric facility in the Western United States, they would be subject to an intense and immediate response by police agencies, Wilbert said. “The federal government doesn’t really give a damn, by and large, about what happens in the open West, at least when it’s wealthy white people doing the occupying,” he said. “But any occupation that actually threatened their power would see swift retribution. That is one of the main jobs of the police: to protect the rich and business interests against the people.”

DGR has learned that the “Deep Green Resistance” book is part of the FBI’s library at the agency’s offices in Quantico, Va. “They’re definitely aware of us. We have filed a Freedom of Information Act request to find out what kind of information the FBI is gathering,” Wilbert said. “But those requests were denied because they involve active investigations.”

When FBI agents visited her home in Pittsburgh, Neffshade said she felt fear during the questioning. She tried to remain calm. “I felt pressure to respond to their questions because, hey, I’ve been taught that it’s rude to just stand in silence when someone is speaking to you,” she explained. “I maintained silence long enough to gather my thoughts about which phrases are appropriate to say to law enforcement. After they left, I felt shaky and had to fight off feelings of paranoia.”

Before they left, the FBI agents handed Neffshade a business card and said, “If you change your mind, here is contact information.” Neffshades immediately contacted members of DGR to let them know the FBI had showed up on her doorstep.

While the FBI visit will make her more careful about what she writes in letters to prisoners, Neffshade said she has no plans to retreat from her involvement with DGR.

Mark Hand has reported on the energy industry for more than 25 years. He can be found on Twitter @MarkFHand.

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