The Backstory: Adam Federman

Reporting on the War on Protest

For over a decade, Type Investigations reporting fellow Adam Federman has been looking into the ways corporations and governments have responded to protest movements. In February, in partnership with Grist, he reported on newly-obtained documents detailing how the FBI and other government agencies were surveilling anti-Keystone XL pipeline protestors far earlier than previously known. And in his most recent cover story for In These Times magazine, he investigated the wave of anti-protest laws sweeping the country.

It’s an incredibly timely story — we recorded this episode just a few days before the Supreme Court effectively outlawed mass protest in several states, U.S. Senator Tom Cotton encouraged vigilante violence against protesters, and Columbia University called the NYPD to break up a pro-Palestinian protest on campus.

In this conversation, we spoke to Adam about how he began reporting on anti-protest measures, what’s changed in his past decade of reporting, and what the future of protest in the United States looks like. 

Paco Alvarez: A couple of months ago for Grist, you wrote about new documents that shed light on how far back the federal government was monitoring protests during the anti-Keystone XL campaign. And then for In These Times, you looked at the landscape of anti-protest measures by states and the federal government, including the slew of anti-protest laws that have been passed since 2017. Just to start us out, what were your main findings in those investigations? 

Adam Federman: For the Grist story, the big findings in that piece were based on new documents that I got from the FBI showing that the agency had opened what they now call an assessment into Native American groups and leaders in South Dakota beginning in 2012, which was at the very beginning of the Keystone XL pipeline campaign. And about 10 to 11 months before they opened the second investigation into activists in Texas who were protesting the pipeline there. So it basically showed that the FBI had taken an interest in some of these campaigns before we had previously known. And, of course, the documents also revealed that the agency was paying special attention to,Native groups and leaders, which has relevance in the context of what later transpired at Standing Rock in 2016 and 2017 with the massive protests there, on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. 

Which is a good segue in some ways to the story in In These Times, which focused on the wave of new anti-protest laws that have been passed since the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock, many of which focused on enhancing penalties for activists who protest on or near energy infrastructure. And in fact, North Dakota passed one of the first of those kinds of laws which were then replicated in other states. 

Alvarez: You’ve been reporting on anti-protest surveillance by governments and corporations for over a decade. How did you first start reporting on the topic? 

Federman: Yeah, it’s a good question. It came out of some of the reporting that I was doing on fracking in the early days of the boom in that industry, around 2010, 2011, 2012. In Pennsylvania, the Marcellus Shale, and then in Texas, this new technology that opened up, oil and gas development in new locations, and also, generated a lot of opposition. And in Pennsylvania in particular, there was a small group there that ended up being featured in a Department of Homeland Security intelligence bulletin as a kind of extremist group. And there were FBI visits to anti-fracking protesters in Texas, around that same time. 

This overlaps with the early days of the Keystone Pipeline campaign, which was growing in numbers, becoming a national issue. So my I turned my attention to starting to file records requests both at the state and federal level to see whether law enforcement and industry were collaborating to keep an eye on protesters and perhaps undermine some of these growing campaigns. 

Alvarez: A lot of your reporting has been based on documents you’ve received through FOIA requests from the FBI and other federal agencies. I guess. What have your interactions been like with those agencies when it comes to the Freedom of Information Act? 

Federman: They’re pretty tight lipped in terms of answering or responding to any kinds of questions related to documents that you receive. I mean, they essentially say that they don’t comment on records that are released through FOIA.

The process itself can take an incredibly long time to get anything out of, the FBI or the Department of Homeland Security. Sometimes you have to wait over a year to even get a definitive response from the agency. But, if you have the patience and you are able to figure out how to craft requests that produce results, over time, I have been able to actually get a fairly large number of records out of them, in particular the FBI. Although much of that did come after, in partnership with the Guardian filing a lawsuit to challenge many of their withholdings and exemptions of records. 

Alvarez: So for some of those newer documents you talk about in the new Grist piece – you had requested those a while ago, right? 

Federman: Those came out of some of these other FOIA requests that I had done related to the Keystone XL pipeline. And, I think it was a request that I filed in 2020 or 2021 and didn’t get those records until late 2022. And this is after having gotten about 90 pages of FBI records in 2015 related to the Keystone XL pipeline activists in Texas, and then the Guardian lawsuit, which did produce a number of other results related to other environmental organizations and individuals, which I did some reporting on. 

But I guess it just sort of exemplifies the fact that these agencies continue to hold on to records that help us understand the historical context around in some of these events and that it’s really worth fighting and continuing to pursue them so that we can sort of have a better sense of why the response from law enforcement was, as, for example, at Standing Rock, was as militant and aggressive as it was. And why anti-pipeline protesters continue to face the kind of opposition resistance from industry and the federal government that they do, whether it’s the Mountain Valley Pipeline in West Virginia, which is currently being expedited, or some of the battles in the Midwest. 

Alvarez: These laws and policies are happening at both the state and federal levels. Are there differences in how they’re being enacted? And what are the forces pushing for these measures? 

Federman: I mean, the anti-protest laws, I think it’s safe to say that they have kind of come from the state level up. They’ve been championed by conservative groups and legislatures across the country. And I think what we’re beginning to see now, actually, is that federal lawmakers are in some ways adopting some of the same kinds of language and penalties related to, for example, blocking highways, or disrupting traffic that states have already put on paper. And it’s yet to be seen whether they’ll have any success at the federal level, making it a federal crime, for example, to block a highway during a protest. But that is a law that’s been introduced in the wake of protests against U.S. support for Israel’s policy in Palestine.

And even in New York State, for example, Democratic lawmakers there have introduced a bill that would make blocking a road, bridge or transportation infrastructure facility an act of domestic terrorism. So there are new versions of these laws that are continuing to pop up both at the state and federal level that would criminalize common protest related activity. 

Alvarez: In terms of strategy and policy by the government, what has changed since you started reporting on the surveillance and persecution of protesters? 

Federman: I think that’s quite remarkable to think about how much has changed. You know, the Keystone XL pipeline days now seem like much more sort of innocent than the period that we’re living in at the moment with the kinds of responses to activists that we’re seeing. For example, in Atlanta around the Cop City development project to build this massive police training facility in the middle of one of the city’s largest green spaces. I think what’s changed is that protesters have been demonized, and there are now both new laws in place and states willing to use existing laws, for example, in Georgia, with the domestic terrorism law and the racketeering law – use those laws in new ways to target, both protest and also the larger kinds of networks that sustain these campaigns. So it’s a much more hostile environment, I would say, for social movements and street protests than it was ten years ago. 

Alvarez: In terms of federal agencies and like what they’re doing. Did you notice any differences among the three different presidential administrations since you’ve been reporting on this? 

Federman: The FBI, I think, has remained fairly constant in its characterization and interest in the environmental movement. I feel like both its understanding and its characterization of the movement have not evolved much. They continue to kind of lump a lot of nonviolent, peaceful protest in the category of extremism or even domestic terrorism. Grist recently published another story that, not that I was involved in, by Alleen Brown, which revealed that the FBI had up to ten informants on the ground at Standing Rock. So I think the agency’s interest in these campaigns certainly has not diminished. And it probably will take another 5 to 10 years before we have kind of a complete picture of their involvement both at Standing Rock and in Atlanta around the Cop City campaign as well. 

Alvarez: What does the wave of anti-protest legislation and also the actions by the federal government – what do you think that means for the environmental and social justice movements? Like, how do you think these policies will shape protests going forward? 

Federman: That’s sort of the big question. I mean, as we’re seeing sort of in the wake of the war in Gaza, protest is a key kind of tactic for social movements to get their message across and to put pressure on lawmakers. Talking to activists for this story for the In These Times piece, I did get the sense that the the arrests in Atlanta related to the Cop City, the occupation of the forest there and the protest that that charged the activists with both the domestic terrorism and racketeering, which come with potentially very lengthy prison sentences and very stiff fines, that this has already had a chilling effect on their ability to attract new members and to broaden their appeal. 

In short, I think these laws are going to make it harder for organizations and individuals to do what they do, but it’s not as if it’s going to disappear overnight. But I do think it’s deeply troubling. And the legislation hasn’t – it’s continuing to kind of evolve. And more and more states are proposing and passing new bills. So, I think it’s a very dangerous moment for social movements in the United States. 

Alvarez: Yeah. And my last question. Do you have any advice for, you know, reporters, looking to start reporting on protests and the response by the government? 

Federman: Yeah. I mean, it’s a great question. In fact, a young reporter contacted me recently to talk about the grist story and the records that it was based on. And, you know, I think filing a lot of records requests, and not just at the federal level, but looking at states. Figuring out which agencies have the relevant records that you’re searching for and hammering away at your records requests until you crack open the door, and find a way to get these agencies to provide the records that should be part of the public domain. I mean, it can be challenging, frustrating. It can take a very, very long time. But the beauty of FOIA is that it is there for anyone, journalist or the public. And these agencies have an obligation to provide these records.

About the reporter