It was a small story on Page 2 of the Montana Section in the Friday Missoulian: “ACLU sues Montana over Keystone XL protest plans.”
Following the lead of our eastern neighbors, North and South Dakota, two Montana state government offices are making plans to thwart potential protests at the proposed oil pipeline that crosses Northeastern Montana. Violations of protesters’ rights in the Dakotas piqued the interest of the Montana ACLU.
In North Dakota, where the Dakota Access Pipeline runs under the Missouri River near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, there were 761 protesters arrested. Here’s one outtake from the protest when tribal members attempted to stop bulldozers from digging up possible Native graves and burial artifacts:
When unarmed protesters crossed the perimeter fence to stop the bulldozers, the (private security) guards used pepper spray and guard dogs to attack. At least six protesters were treated for dog bites, and an estimated 30 were pepper-sprayed before the guards and their dogs left the scene in trucks.
In South Dakota, the legislature passed laws that allowed the state to sue individuals for “riot boosting,” or “encouraging protests where violence eventually occurs, even if the defendant does not participate in rioting,” according to The Hill. That legislation will not be enforced after the state agreed to a settlement with the South Dakota ACLU. An ACLU attorney summed it up:
“This settlement helps ensure that no one has to fear the government coming after them for exercising their First Amendment right to protest.”
The Montana ACLU website goes into more detail than the news story as to its lawsuit against the Montana Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) and the Department of Emergency Services (DES).
The ACLU asked for documents from the two agencies for their plans on responding to potential protests. The agencies released the documents but, “they were so heavily redacted they were unintelligible.” The DCI and DES also “imposed ‘gag orders’ on the documents they did provide, which prohibits the ACLU of Montana from sharing any of the information in those documents with the public.”
The ACLU’s action, which is certainly legitimate when one looks at how the Dakotas dealt with, or are planning to deal with, protesters, states:
“The ACLU is concerned that such plans may include spying on protesters, suppressing constitutionally protected free speech rights, and responding with militarized police tactics.”
There are other questions surrounding these anti-protest plans: who told the agencies to draw up contingencies for potential protests? Industry? The governor’s office? The attorney general’s office?
But there’s an even more troubling question — in the face of environmental degradation, contributing to the climate crisis and ignoring Native sovereignty, protests will likely occur, and to plan for them is not unexpected.
But why all the secrecy unless violating the protesters’ right to free speech and peaceful assembly isn’t part of that plan?