Keeping the Lid on Environmental Outrage
Environmental activists challenging the transport of petroleum extraction equipment from the United States to Canada are the target of a series of intrusive and threatening visits from federal agents. Now civil liberties attorney Larry Hildes is a target as well.
“They appear to be interested in actions” seeking to block tar sands petroleum production “and the Keystone XL pipeline,” civil liberties attorney Larry Hildes told Dissent NewsWire. Hildes has represented environmental and peace activists for over a decade from his offices in Bellingham, Washington. His clients have drawn repeated visits from state and federal law enforcement and intelligence agents. The current targets of aggressive interviews by state and federal agents are clustered in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho but they reflect a trend that has continued for over a decade that is based on the empirically false claim by the US government that radical ideas lead to violent acts. Hildes previously went through a spate of traffic stops and agent visits for questioning around 2009, he told Dissent Newswire, but he thought authorities had come to realize he posed no threat to public safety.
Hildes had filed a lawsuit against the US Army “for illegal spying on activists in the port militarization resistance movement,” Hildes recalls. “These were activists objecting to US military vehicles being shipped from ports” on the west coast to war zones in the Middle East including Iraq. Bellingham, Washington–where Hildes lives and works–is much closer to Vancouver, Canada than Seattle, Washington. “We routinely drive across the border 3-4 times a month on a fairly consistent basis,” notes Hildes who adds that he and his wife sometimes cross the border just to go out to dinner. After he filed the 2009 civil liberties lawsuit Hildes “we started to get flagged crossing the border and even the state police began to stop us,” recalls Hildes. Once he was told his car was on an alert that “three known anarchists were in the car.”
Pushing back, Hildes and a supporter forced the disclosure of public record document that revealed that there were 167 pages of files representing each time his license plate was run through the federal National Crime Information Center and state databases for identification. In another incident “There was an “alert for the three known anarchists” in a car which “happened to our client Phil Chinn, who was arrested for DUI, ” recounts Hildes. The “charges were dismissed after we started asking about the alert code. We sued and settled for $169,000 plus $248,000 in attorneys fees.” And Hildes notes with irony that “Phil is now a Public Defender in King County.”
All of the explanations and excuses for the traffic stops in 2009 seemed to Hildes to be specious and merely a pretext for interrogating him and seeing who else and what else might be found in the vehicle. He brushed off this campaign of harassment as the price he paid for being a civil liberties lawyer representing clients willing to commit civil disobedience to press their political demands. For a few years the border incidents became a memory, and Hildes and his wife as frequent travelers who passed through the border crossing began to recognize the border agents and interact with them on a casual level.
“We got to know a lot of them over the years and as they got to know us they realized we were not a threat,” says Hildes. “They would chat with us and ask us a few routine questions…we had no problems for years.” Hildes is a member of the National Lawyers Guild, an organization that has pursued aggressive civil rights and civil liberties litigation and activist support since the 1930s. The Guild was the first integrated Bar Association in the United States. The NLG tends to attract more radical members than other civil liberties legal groups. As such it has had a close relationship with the government and people of Cuba throughout the decades of US sanctions.
In the Spring of 2015 Hildes served on an official Guild delegation to Cuba, returning on May 6. He knew there was a problem when his passport verification photo, machine issued on entry to the US, bore a large red “X” through his face.
He was asked to stand against a wall until he was collected by someone representing Customs and Immigration and placed in a windowless room with other hapless people selected for questioning. After a few hours of cooling his heels in a locked room, Hildes was brought to an interview where he was asked what he was doing in Cuba. “I explained I was an attorney and was in Cuba representing the National Lawyers Guild.” Was this just random? It seemed unlikely to Hildes when they began asking him about his law office in Bellingham, Washington, and “read off my office address” from a sheet of paper.
All this is clearly frustrating and annoying to Hildes as he rattles off a series of recent border stop, question, and search incidents as he returns to the United States from Canada. One incident stands out. After being stopped once again at the border while entering the United States, one border agent asked Hildes what his relationship was with “Deanna Meyers.” Meyers is a nationally known eco-activist and part of the Deep Green Resistance group which appears to be a major target of government surveillance as part of preparing a criminal case against the group. Deep Green Resistance encourages aboveground and underground networks.
Underground networks are free to engage in acts of eco-sabotage based on their own volition. Open and above ground members are expected to take a pledge of nonviolence. Hildes explained that he represented Deanna Meyers as her attorney. The agent wanted to talk about Meyers. Hildes noted that to chat about Deanna Meyers would be unethical and violate attorney-client privilege. The agent began to back-peddle and claimed that it was just a routine agricultural inspection stop. A routine stop during which the name of Hildes’ client Deanna Meyers just dropped from the sky?
Hildes asked what was going on. The border agent retorted: “You can’t tell me anything? Then I can’t tell you anything.” At another stop Hildes and his wife were asked to fill out a customs declaration, and the agents performed a “superficial search” of the car. “As we are leaving,” explain Hildes, “my wife asked the border agent who finally cleared us what took so long.” The response? The border agent explained: “I had to get clearance from another federal agency and they told me to go ahead and let you go.” The story of Hildes’ travails has become international news. “At this point we want to know what’s going on,” Hildes told The Guardian in London, “we want the details and also personally I want it to stop.”