By Tony Webster from Minneapolis, Minnesota (Bakken / Dakota Access Oil Pipeline) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

August 22, 2017; Washington Post

For months, NPQ has followed the #NoDAPL movement. There are plenty of open issues between Native tribes and the corridors of North American power, but Standing Rock was the largest gathering of Native Americans in over 100 years. Their demand for a voice in a socioeconomic decision inspired other tribes and aided enormously in building awareness of Native issues. Native voices were joined and amplified by the involvement of nonprofit allies like Greenpeace, an organization with a history of using unusually stunt-like tactics to fight environmental damage.

Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) has no intention of fighting an empowered and organized resistance every time it installs a pipeline, and has already taken steps to discredit the #NoDAPL movement and its allies. On August 22nd, ETP filed a lawsuit against “Greenpeace Intl.; Greenpeace, Inc.; Greenpeace Fund, Inc.; Earth First!; and John and Jane Does 1-20.” The lawsuit claims:

This case involves a network of putative not-for-profits and rogue eco-terrorist groups who employ patterns of criminal activity and campaigns of misinformation to target legitimate companies and industries with fabricated environmental claims and other purported misconduct, inflicting billions of dollars in damage. The network’s pattern of criminal and other misconduct includes (i) defrauding charitable donors and cheating federal and state tax authorities with claims that they are legitimate tax-free charitable organizations; (ii) cyberattacks; (ii) intentional and malicious interference with their targeted victim’s relationships; and (iv) physical violence, threats of violence and the purposeful destruction of private and federal property.

Linda Black Elk, a teacher of ethnobotany at a tribal community college who has lived at Standing Rock for most of her life and was a prominent figure in the protests, had this to say in response:

Their suit makes these amazing environmental organizations look like slick, white, profiteers, who have worked us poor, ignorant, Indians into a frenzy over “groundless claims” concerning harm to the environment and sacred sites…They are saying that we, as this nation’s original people, don’t have the intelligence or self determination to care about our lands, water, plants, wildlife, or sacred sites…This is all part of a larger strategy on behalf of Energy Transfer to completely discredit Native peoples in general and delegitimize water protectors specifically. It could also intimidate these big green groups from partnering with grass roots people in environmental campaigns.

The lawsuit seeks to blur the lines between Greenpeace’s type of direct advocacy tactics and the violent confrontation associated with riots or dangerous, unpredictable actors. Greenpeace uses “sensational, nonviolent confrontations to expose governments and corporations that abuse environmental laws.” Tactics like those used at Standing Rock—physically standing in the way of projects, raising an outcry against companies they see as inflicting environmental damage, and trespassing the boundaries of the law for their cause—are strategic risks that the organization chooses to take. Greenpeace does not seek to harm, but rather to influence the behavior of corporations that have greater financial and political capital and little reason to engage with them.

Greenpeace’s risk profile makes them a public player in conversations where they wouldn’t otherwise have the resources to participate. They create a polarizing public image, but their tactics have the advantage of building credibility with their base, something David Renz has advised nonprofits to consider when assessing risk. Their refusal to affiliate with or accept donations from any governmental organization or private enterprise is certainly a financial risk (and indeed, their assets are limited), but it gives them the freedom to insist on divestment where the environment is at stake and maintain their credibility. They’ve certainly made mistakes in the past, but they are committed to spreading their message by the most public means available.

The statute being used by ETP, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, is normally used to prosecute crime syndicates. The use of this act, and the inflammatory language in the lawsuit, are conduits for a message: Greenpeace and its Native allies with #NoDAPL are not legitimate actors, and do not deserve equal voice at the table. The use of the word “terrorist” is especially provocative, implying as it does an actor who has no legitimate goals except the inspiration of fear—a deliberate misclassification and delegitimization of Greenpeace’s direct advocacy tactics.

NPQ wrote in August of the obligations nonprofits have to “offer a counternarrative“ to notions of racial superiority, and explained the history of democracy as a “fight for the public square—who speaks and who doesn’t, whose issues matter and whose are marginalized, who can congregate and who is intimidated.” Cyndi Suarez wrote that “Nonprofits are, in essence, stewards of the public square.” If this is so, we must also consider the terms of access to it. It matters when activist groups are described as “ecoterrorists,” or when large companies like ETP use the enormous platform their financial and political capital gives them to discredit their opponents. Famed linguist John Gumperz noted that “Control of communicative resources varies sharply with the individual’s position within the social system.” Controlling the public conversation and the way in which advocacy groups are seen by the public means controlling the amount of social and political capital those groups have, and therefore their ability to participate legitimately in future debates. This lawsuit seeks to define who can speak, and how.

ETP’s lawsuit is damaging in many ways. For one thing, the “hundreds of millions of dollars” claimed in damages is many times larger than Greenpeace, Inc.’s total assets, which are less than $4 million. The lawsuit includes allegations that claims of environmental hazard made by Greenpeace and other #NoDAPL protestors are fallacious, implying that disputes elsewhere relying on similar claims could be in danger. But the effort to discredit legitimate advocacy groups like Greenpeace has problematic implications for other ongoing struggles that involve a power imbalance, such as civil rights issues and environmental activism. Insofar as nonprofits are part of the public conversation and influencers of its terms, they must speak in a way that recognizes legitimate actors in civic space.—Erin Rubin