On 15 May 2016 three friends from Fairfield, Iowa, made the five-hour drive to an oil refinery on the shores of Lake Michigan to participate in what was part of a series of protests and acts of civil disobedience in the fight against climate change. They had every intention of getting arrested. What they didn’t expect was to end up in an FBI file for taking part in a peaceful protest.
But according to documents obtained by the Guardian through a Freedom of Information Act (Foia) lawsuit, the file on the Iowa protesters was part of a larger effort by the FBI to assess the danger posed by the climate change activist group 350.org in the run-up to a series of actions that were part of the Break Free from Fossil Fuels campaign. The FBI released seven pages and withheld 25.
Though there is no evidence the FBI has opened an investigation into 350.org, one of the documents, catalogued as part of a related domestic terrorism case, says: “350.org are referenced in multiple investigations and assessments for their planned protests and disruptions.” The file also makes an apparent reference to the 350.org founder Bill McKibben.
McKibben, who has been the subject of both rightwing surveillance and disturbing online death threats, said the FBI’s apparent failure to distinguish between non-violent civil disobedience and domestic terrorism was contemptible.
“Trying to deal with the greatest crisis humans have stumbled into shouldn’t require being subjected to government surveillance,” McKibben said. “But when much of our government acts as a subsidiary of the fossil fuel industry, it may be par for the course.”
The FBI is prohibited from investigating groups or individuals solely for their political beliefs but has been criticized in the past for treating non-violent civil disobedience as a form of terrorism. In 2010 the Office of the Inspector General released a report detailing how the FBI, particularly in the post-9/11 era, had inappropriately tracked activist groups such as Greenpeace and the Catholic Worker for engaging in non-violent protest.
The Break Free campaign took place over the course of a two-week period in May 2016 and included protests and acts of non-violent direct action on six continents. More than 30,000 people participated and dozens were arrested for trespassing and blocking rail access to refineries in what was described by the organizers as the largest coordinated act of civil disobedience in the fight against climate change.
The 15 May protest in Whiting, Indiana, involved about a thousand protesters who marched to the BP refinery, one of the largest processors of crude oil in the country. When they reached the entrance 41 of the protesters gathered in a circle on BP property and sang a protest chant.
For Jonas Magram, Thom Krystofiak and Inga Frick, all in their mid-to-late 60s, it was the first time they had ever been arrested. Frick, who is 67, said she was an unlikely activist but felt compelled to participate because of the urgency of addressing climate change.
“I think that by far the most important thing that’s not happening in the world is not dealing with this,” she said.
Magram, who is a part-time math teacher and turned 70 this week, was one of the organizers of No Bakken Here, an Iowa-based activist group that campaigned against the Dakota Access pipeline. Part of the pipeline runs through Jefferson county, Iowa, which includes the small city of Fairfield.
The file referencing the three Fairfield residents was drafted by the Omaha FBI field office, which oversees all of Nebraska and Iowa. Though their names are redacted Magram, Krystofiak and Frick were the only Fairfield residents arrested in Whiting during the protest, according to Krystofiak.
The subject of the file identifies the larger investigation or assessment as a “Sensitive Investigative Matter”, which often refers to cases that involve political organizations and therefore require a higher level of scrutiny from the FBI.
In 2015 the Guardian revealed that the FBI had violated its own rules by failing to acquire the necessary approval to open an investigation into activists in Texas campaigning against the Keystone XL pipeline. That investigation went on for more than a year and swept up numerous activists including one who later learned he was on a US government watchlist for domestic flights.
- “It is very, very troubling that those of us who are committed to protecting life on our planet, through peaceful protest, would be regarded as suspected enemies of the state.”