In response to the nation’s ongoing protests against the brutal murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last week, cops have deployed tear gas, rubber bullets, and batons, and even killed a Black man in Louisville. To encourage even further repression, the Trump administration is blaming its favorite bogeyman, antifa, for the uprising. Last week, Trump tweeted that the U.S. “will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization.”
He can’t do that, not only because he doesn’t have the authority, but also because antifa is not an organization at all—it refers to a shared ideology of anti-fascism. But because there’s no singular formal group called “antifa,” the Trump administration can use attacks on it to justify wide-ranging repression of any movements it deems dangerous to its allies. In this case, that’s Black Lives Matter. But based on its record of defending the oil and gas industry, it could target climate protesters as well, putting a chill on the growing movement.
Between lobbying money and campaign contributions and board seats, the Trump administration and other politicians have their interests wrapped up in fossil fuel corporations. They can help preserve those companies’ social license and business models by attacking their opponents under the guise of stopping a make-believe shadowy terrorist organization.
Violent crackdowns on climate justice demonstrations predate Trump. Most notably, when water protectors gathered at at Standing Rock in 2016 to demand Energy Transfer Partners keep the Dakota Access pipeline off the Sioux Tribe’s land, they were met with brutal attacks from the police, the military, and the National Guard. A private security firm also launched an intrusive military-style surveillance and counterintelligence campaign against some of the activists. Some of the protestors are still facing federal charges that could land them in prison for 110 years.
Since then, the climate movement has exploded, with global climate strikes, lawsuits, comprehensive policy proposals, and surging public concern about the environment. More Americans than ever are demanding climate action and meeting those demands would require winding down the U.S. oil and gas industry.The pressure of protests and economics have been mounting on oil companies, and it’s clear some of them have started to sweat.
As the climate movement has grown, so have state and federal policies to repress it. In the years since Standing Rock, 21 states have introduced criminal penaltiesfor demonstrating near oil and gas infrastructure. Last year, the Trump administration proposed legislation that would prescribe up to 20 years in prison for “inhibiting the operation” of pipelines, or even just vaguely “conspiring” to do so. Law enforcement authorities have also continued to surveil environmental activists, include them on lists of extremists, and otherwise target them with so-called counter-terrorism measures. Many of the same measures have been used to target Black Lives Matter.
In their antifa conspiracy, the government has a new tool to surveil and harass environmental protestors and green-light an even more militarized response to dissenting voices. In the past week, the Trump administration announced the launch of an FBI investigation into “antifa and other similar groups” and also granted the Drug Enforcement Administration sweeping new authority to “conduct covert surveillance” on those “using Antifa-like tactics.”
The new federal policies could also act as a signal to state and city police to ramp up attacks. Climate activists could face even more police violence, surveillance, and criminal penalties for trying to preserve a habitable planet. For activists of color who are disproportionately targeted by law enforcement, the risks will be particularly high.
All of this could have a chilling effect on the climate movement right as we enter a crucial decade of action. The world simply cannot continue burning fossil fuels at its current pace. After years of failing to gain traction, the climate movement has seen real momentum build. Repression could stunt that momentum by keeping people on the brink of joining the movement to stay home. Any attempts to label the climate movement as some kind of extremists could also serve to delegitimize their demands—and their anger about the grip fossil fuel zealots have on power.
Since the recent uprisings against police brutality began, Trump and other officials have sown paranoia by making baseless statements that antifa-affiliated “radical left anarchists” are inciting violence and riots. They could easily say the same about climate protests, especially ones that use more aggressive tactics. Officials have already drawn from this “outside agitators” playbook to discredit pipeline protests. Amid hysteria about antifa terrorists, more of that could be on the way.
Of course, demands to urgently draw down carbon emissions, stop the extraction of fossil fuels, and help communities adapt to climate disasters aren’t radical. They’re necessary to avert total planetary catastrophe. But as the Trump administration has shown us, corporate interests come first, dissent be damned. Frankly, that seems kind of fascist, and I must admit, I’m against it.