Five Suggestions for When State Repression Comes to Town

CLDC has been providing movement aligned legal support to the campaigns and activists in the so called U.S. for over 20 years now.  In that time period, I have personally witnessed numerous waves of state repression targeting the campaigns that were moving the needle on the moral compass—anti-racism, environmental and animal defense, water and food safety, Indigenous sovereignty, LGBTQIA+, and others.  The state, whether government actors or big corporate profiteers, have a limited playbook that they tend to repeat over and over. This is why knowing your movement history is core to building resilience.

History has demonstrated that when state repression comes to town it is often because your campaign is winning or demonstrating strength and the state elects to spend vast resources on derailing your momentum.  In the face of state repression, there are numerous things to keep in mind. While this is not an exhaustive list, here are five suggestions of where to begin:

  1. Take care of your people—body and mind.

Being threatened with criminal prosecution, jail, and/or investigation is stressful and impacts people in very different ways.  When the state purposefully uses bond or bail conditions to attempt to isolate targeted individuals (defendants) from their communities, that community must think creatively and carefully about how to provide maximum support with minimal risk of landing someone back in jail.  Remember that the targeted person’s loved ones can also be impacted. Support for parents, children, and significant others is essential.  During the Green Scare the community spent an entire day doing yard work projects at the home of a grand jury resister who was incarcerated.  His wife felt loved and supported which made it easier to deal with the loss and stress of her partner and she continues to be a strong movement supporter to this day.

Remember that politically motivated criminal prosecutions may take a long time to resolve.  Engagement with the carceral legal system is a marathon, not a sprint. Pace yourselves and practice radical self-care.

  1. Keep doing the work.

State repression is intended to stop the political movement and deter people from joining or supporting the public interest work being done.  The work must continue or else the state sees that its tactics succeeded. When the movement acquiesces to repression,  it serves to embolden the state and its deployment of such tactics now and in the future.  Recognize that state resources are being deployed against you and be mindful of security culture and the harm reduction tools that nimble activists have at their disposal.  Continue to diligently grow your movements’ size and reach. Engage solid communications and outreach strategies to broaden movement support if possible. Ensuring your community is engaged in good security culture practices does provide hardiness.  Committing to lawful digital hygiene is important.  See CLDC’s digital security webinars for more.

A healthy movement has many roles to fill—whether you are a defendant, a parent, or frontline risk taker, there are many ways to strengthen and continue movement work in a consensual way.

  1. Be prepared for the state to double-down on the terrorist rhetoric

Most reasonable folk know that terrorism describes acts like the World Trade Center bombing, the Oklahoma Federal Building bombing, or other intentional acts of mass murder.  When the state attempts to conflate those horrific acts with direct actions such as sitting in a tree or denting a police car, their tenuous hyperbolic rhetoric becomes transparent to all.  Why would they attempt to persuade people that defending the forest is the equivalent of terrorism?  Because they wrongly believe that their stranglehold on mass media will confuse, scare or misinform.  We need to engage the public at large, reminding them that these lies and manipulations couldn’t be farther from the truth, and when the state attempts to brand everyone and everything as terrorists, we are all less safe from actual threats.  Also be prepared for the state one-two punch. The state makes arrests and files charges, and when they see everyone bunched up around those activist-targets looking fatigued and stressed, they go in for the knockout and file even more serious or sinister charges—often against perceived leaders or heroes of the movement or campaign.  Movement appearances matter in the face of state repression because the state is definitely watching closely.

  1. Lawyer up & shut up

Movement lawyers and politically aware lawyers can run interference when the state attempts to intrude in your political work.  When state tactics such as knock and talks occur (when law enforcement shows up at your home, workplace, etc. to ‘talk’ to you as part of an “investigation”), it is important to drag them into the light and expose their playbook.  And equally important is to simply decline their invitation to talk—even if you think what you have to say is harmless.  These tactics are intended to invoke fear and chill the First Amendment rights of association, assembly and free speech.  Simply assert your 5th amendment rights as a unified political front and the state will have a harder time attempting to exploit vulnerable community members. Again, if the state thinks one of its tactics is creating the results they want—fear, division, diminished campaign strength, and of course if they actually obtain intelligence on the movement and it’s participants—you can bet they will be back at it again and again. Establishing a roster of trusted lawyers to provide legal information to you, and to potentially back the state off of you and/or your loved ones, is just one component in building community resilience against repression.  It’s an important one to develop early and often. The CLDC often assists communities in building these legal teams-reach out to us for ideas and support.

  1. Prosecutors as political tools

Prosecutors and law enforcement agents often know what they are doing is wrong while they are doing it, but they are pressured by political hacks that hold power over them.  During the Green Scare, FBI agents hunted animal and environmental activists engaged in economic sabotage and prosecutors sought the terrorism sentencing enhancement in the indictments.  The U.S. Attorney at the time, Alberto Gonzales, held a press conference on the day of their arrests and called them the number one domestic terrorist threat (so much for innocent until proven guilty).  We all knew that in this new post 9/11 world, the state was using these activists to distract the public from the fact that they were unable to find or catch anyone connected to the World Trade Center murders.  Twenty years later, FBI agents admitted that the activist defendants were used as political pawns and did not deserve to be branded as terrorists. At least one agent regretted their complicity in this heinous abuse of power.  Call it out when you see and it leverage it to the benefit of the movement.  Maybe you have comrades well situated to engage the political machinations at their own game?  Also know that your lawyers can fight hard and challenge the constitutionality of political charges like Georgia’s domestic terrorism statute, expose the illegitimacy of repressive prosecutorial misconduct, and make the state spend lots and lots of time and resources in fighting a political case.

Final Thoughts:

Movements are not built or destroyed in court rooms but resistance to these tactics are one of many that must be deployed in the face of state repression.  Solidarity is critically important.  As environmental and social justice activists and supporters, when they come after one of us, they come after all of us.  When repressive tactics result in a decline in organizing and strategic action, or they manage to divide and conquer, the state wins. And rest assured that they will return to those tactics in your community and beyond.

Political movements are targeted by the capitalist state because they know we offer and work toward a hopeful alternative to the suffering and planetary destruction they seek to profit from.  I went to law school in order to fill a niche my movement needed.  Twenty-five years later, I am grateful to stand in solidarity with movements like the Atlanta forest defenders, Water Protectors, pipeline resisters, antifascists, and those fighting for Black lives, among many others.  I am proud to have founded the Civil Liberties Defense Center knowing that we will have your back when state repression comes to town.

In solidarity always,

Lauren Regan