Fragile States

Fragile States is an archive of interviews with former political prisoners who have been incarcerated for climate activism. It is an ongoing project to celebrate and financially support those who have faced retaliatory state violence for engaging in direct action.

As the climate crisis deepens, governments around the world are using every means at their disposal to crack down on protest and activism. However, in exercising their power, they simultaneously reveal their own fragility. The extreme legal and police response to climate resistance is a tacit acknowledgment of the incredible potential opened by those attempting to enact a livable future.

This work is supported by a research grant from New York University. We have redistributed these funds to pay each interviewee $1000 for their participation. We invite others with access to academic funding to join us in considering how university resources might best be allocated in this era of crisis.

By Sam Lavigne & Tega Brain, with special thanks to Nīkau and Kate Silzer.

Max Curmi

Blockade Australia

My name is Max Curmi. I’m 27. I grew up in Victoria, in so-called Australia, and I’ve been involved in climate activism of some sort since I was a teenager. Over time I’ve drifted away from approaches that are appealing to the political class, towards taking part in direct action because my assessment of the situation is that the people in control on this continent have little or no interest at all in doing the responsible thing and looking after life. So, for the last five years, I have been organizing full-time on this continent, with a focus primarily on non-violent direct action in several different campaigns and movements.

Blockade Australia was set up to try to move the conversation around climate beyond the “we need to stop the next bad project,” and towards the need for transformational or system change in order to respond to the crisis. You hear a lot of people talking about “the system’s broken,” “the system is malfunctioning,” “we need to fix the system,” but our framing is that it’s actually not broken. It's performing exactly the way it was set up by the English when they came here to so-called Australia. For the climate movement to actually start to engage with this in an effective way we have to acknowledge the situation that we are currently facing. And it’s not a couple of bad politicians or a couple of bad corporations, it’s an entire economic and legal framework that prevents change from happening and that locks in an extraction-based economy that is fundamentally about exploiting people and the environment for as much profit as possible for the rich.

Our positioning with Blockade Australia is that we are trying to frame Australia as an organized system that is doing harmful things. Take for example the Adani coal mine. Much of the movement against Adani framed them as a bad corporation that was going to do bad things. But we want to expand that to say no, it’s much more than just bad corporations. It’s a bad system. And as everyday people, we haven’t got political and legal avenues to stop the harm that’s being done so we have to go and start to engage in the sort of resistance politics you see around the world when regimes refuse to listen to experts and behave in a way that's opposed to the interests of the population.

We are not trying to appeal to people in power, we are trying to force them to deal with the fact that we are powerful ourselves.

With Blockade Australia we are targeting the most important bits of the economy. We targeted the world’s largest coal port in Newcastle and shut that down for two weeks. We then targeted the port of Botany which is the first port that was set up on this continent and we shut that down for a week.

I was involved in an action there. I climbed up a crane in the port and shut that section of the port down for eight hours. It was Friday morning on the fourth day of actions. We’d been targeting different sections of the port, the roadways, and the rail leading into the port for the previous couple of days.

At dawn we set up a bipod, which is two 7 or 8 meter poles that are tied together at the top. We positioned the bipod off a rail bridge over a river. A friend of mine climbed up there and hung down from a rope that was tied to the top of the bipod, over the train lines, so no trains could go in or out of the port for the next four hours.

When that friend was taken down, another lady, a 65-year-old woman, climbed on top of one of the stopped trains and halted the use of the railway line for another three hours.

Then, at about 2 o’clock that day, I ran into the container terminal itself. This is where the containers are taken off the ships and put onto the land. It was a solo action. I had climbing equipment with me and a lock-on device which is two bits of steel pipe welded together so I could lock my arms around something and they would have to grind me out. My plan was to go in and climb up one of those cranes and lock myself on there somewhere where they couldn't get to me.

It was one of the biggest experiences of my life. It was a long run in, with a lot of weight. I had to climb over a lot of fences. I ended up getting to the top of the crane, which in hindsight was very lucky. I climbed off the edge and abseiled down to a position on the main arm of the crane. I was hanging out over where the ship was, and I was livestreaming on the Blockade Australia page, encouraging people to look at the actions that we were doing as an extended period of resistance.

I hung on the crane for about six hours. A storm actually came in while I was up there so I got really wet and really cold, and then the cops got me down with another massive crane and I spent the next 18 days in jail.

I had five charges.

The first one was "endangering life on a rail," which was actually the one that got me sentenced to four months in jail. On my way into the port I ran along a railway line for about 50 meters so they charged me with endangering life on a rail. I got "trespass in a waterside area" and something like "unregulated high risk activity," which was the climbing. I also got "refusal to comply with the directions of an officer" and the last one was an incitement charge. Because I was live-streaming, I was charged with inciting a future indictable offense. This is a mid-range offense that normally carries jail time. I guess these are the things the cops were starting to do because at that stage, they hadn’t stopped any of the actions. So the way they decided to respond was to hit us with a lot of ridiculous charges.

I think the most scary thing to the ruling class is people participating in organized direct action. We are moving away from a protest and persuasion sort of positioning, which is what the climate movement generally was, to a political resistance framing. The actions we are doing have slowly escalated, but the politics that have come along with that action have developed, and now we are talking about things that are much more threatening to the people in power.

This continent has a long history of persecuting people. The communists were persecuted in the late 1940s, and First Nations people have been hunted and hanged when they stood up and said: “this system is shit, it doesn’t contribute to the betterment of the general population.” We have been trying to forge a new path for the climate movement and there is always a high risk for the people who put their hands up to push that early on. Exposing yourself as an organizer means they are going to crack down on you hard.

The response fits in with the anglo-American empire, which Australia is part of, that has always dealt with resistance by attacking it really hard and when it’s at its infancy so it doesn’t get any momentum. There are some smart political thinkers in the ruling establishment and they have a textbook that goes: “When we’re being threatened, even if that threat is small, crush the hell out of it and make it as scary as possible for people to join.” This is the approach across the board.

I was arrested again one week before the start of our first public mobilization. The previous mobilizations were organized in secret because we wanted to give ourselves some advantage, but we ultimately want to be organizing in the open so that people who aren’t connected to our networks can join in. So the police had a long time to get ready, and so did we, but they have more resources. We had a camp on the outskirts of Sydney on a private property, owned by someone who is part of the movement who was happy to lend their land to us.

We were out there running non-violent direct action trainings and doing community building work. Some people saw some other people in camouflage up the hill and went up to them to ask them what they were doing. They lay there until the people who spotted them were standing right over them. One of our group reached down and asked, “what are you doing?” and they got up and said, “we’re compromised, we’re compromised” into their radio. They got into a car that came speeding through our camp. Some of us, not me, but others, stood in front of the car to prevent it from leaving. The car ran over two people and one of them still has significant injuries from that, but the car ended up stopping. They ended up being undercover police.

A massive amount of police came in. Within the hour, between 50-100 police, with the dog squad, the riot squad, and a police helicopter, came in and were chasing people down. It was a really hectic thing. I was arrested on false accusations. I got charged with a series of riot offenses, also with a conspiracy to help others take part in what they describe as “illegal protest.” I was arrested along with nine others. Everyone else, apart from me and one other person, got bail, and me and the other person got sent to jail. So I was back in for 22 days.

There is now a 10 day mandatory isolation period to try to keep COVID out of the jails. And because I’d been in there before, I was pushing really hard to be put in the same cell as my friend as this was their first time in there and luckily we were able to do our 10 days together. You are locked in a box for 10 days. There is no going outside. Food comes in through a little hole in the wall. You can make a phone call a day once you’ve got money coming in from the outside, but that generally takes 7-9 days if you’re lucky. There is no other access to any sort of communications at all.

I was in a privatized jail, so we ended up staying in that isolation cell for 17 days before they moved us out. Then we got put into the general wing in jail. Jail is a very horrible dehumanizing place. A lot of largely poor people in there, who have been picked up going about their lives. There are a lot of people suffering. But my experience with the other prisoners was generally pretty good.

That said, I’m a vegan, you just have to eat the meat. My friend had his medication denied to him the whole time so he was having a really hard time with that. And there is nothing to do, so you are just in there looking at a concrete box. I guess it feels like being a hen or a pig in one of those factories — sensorially deprived without any kind of contact with nature or fresh air. And when you do get out into the main wing, there are dangerous people there. You’ve got people living in really shit conditions and you have prison guards who know how to use their position of power to give people a shit time. They definitely knew who me and my friend were and they gave us a shit time. I had a very bad time one day, got hassled and I don't really want to say more than that. But it had come down from the screws. They had put people up to beat the shit out of me really.

But that was kind of a one-off thing. There are rules in jail, like most people are in there for some unfortunate thing and people want to be looked after. Very quickly after that happened a lot of the people in there, particularly some of the First Nations guys, organized themselves and came to my protection. So I was pretty safe reasonably quickly but always at the mercy of the guards who can just grab you and take you and put you somewhere else where no one can protect you. So I was totally on edge the whole time I was in there and definitely didn’t know if I was going to get out until I did. It’s like being in an alien world and then you get popped back out into society which has moved on. It’s very strange.

While I was in jail, the police were running a shock and awe campaign on the rest of my group. They were doing things like going into people’s hotel rooms at 11 o’clock at night, filming everybody, and basically carrying out a super hectic response to what was just a climate change protest in the city. I think the people on the outside had a heaps more hectic time than me on the inside, as they were getting chased around by a hell of a lot of police for a couple of weeks.

I just got out again last week and was sent back to Victoria because they wouldn’t let me out in New South Wales. I have a massive list of known associations so I can’t talk to any of my friends, can’t talk to most of the community who were involved with organizing the protest. What they’ve done effectively is use all the bike gang laws. They are treating us like an outlaw motorcycle gang and we’re trying to get the charges off, but from my experience over the past six months, I’m not really holding my breath that a lot of that stuff is going to be taken away. And because they have charged a lot of people with ridiculous charges, we had to plead not guilty so we are probably going to be on these bail conditions for six months or longer. I’ve been on bail for years before. That’s what they are trying to do to break us up. They are using bail as a punishment.

Red Fawn Fallis

Standing Rock

I want to give a heartfelt thank you and respect to everybody reading this. I come to you with a good heart and a good mind.

My name is Red Fawn and my Lakota name is Good Hearted Woman, which was given to me during ceremony. I'm an Oglala Lakota from Pine Ridge, South Dakota. I was raised in Denver, Colorado. I was raised in the American Indian Movement. I come from generations of family members and friends that have stood up against injustice against Mother Earth, against our way of life, our ceremonies. I grew up with a raised fist in the air.

In the beginning of summer in 2016, my grandma, who was one of the pillars in my life, passed away. Then in June my mother passed away from cancer, and she was the other pillar in my life, so I was literally at a crossroads. My mom was a traditional canupa carrier, which is a pipe carrier and a sun dancer and I really wanted to honor her in that way. We buried her ceremonially.

We're part of the Oceti Ŝakowiŋ which is the seven bounds of the Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota nations who roam through the plains of Montana, South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, North Dakota, and then over to mostly the east and west side of the Missouri River on the borderlands. In our language, the Missouri River is called Mnisose, which is the muddy waters. In our culture, in our spiritual beliefs, our first medicine was water; Mni Wakan is water. It's sacred to us because it's our medicine. It's how we carry our children within our bodies. It's how we live and what our body operates on.

I have Lakota relatives from the American Indian Movement who are from Standing Rock and who live there. One of my friends, my brothers, calls me and he's like, "Hey. They're going to be starting pre-construction on a pipeline that's going to be going underneath the Missouri River around Standing Rock.” I was like, "Are you serious?" And he said, "Yes. We should go." I was thinking he meant we should go sometime later on. I was like, "When?" He's like, "Now." I'm like, "Literally?" The call came in and we went.

That land was very sacred to us. People would come and bring their hocokah — what would it be translated into? Their altar. Medicine men would bring their altar, set it down and they'd pray and have ceremony there. When that pipeline was proposed with that easement of the electrical line and gas lines, it went right through those sacred lands.

When we first arrived at Sacred Stone Camp in the first week of August, I would estimate there were probably about 70 people at the most. People that were staying there permanently, saying they were here for the long haul. Then it just started growing.

We went and we were sitting along that easement line on Highway 1806. I looked around me and there were people of every color. There were white kids, black kids, brown kids, red kids, Asian kids. There were all these different people from everywhere, all over, and more and more were coming in every day.

I think that's really when my healing began because it enabled me to step away from the us/them mentality that you're raised with as a minority. It's always like “them, they did this, they did that,” and it's a real separation, and it doesn't allow us to be human beings anymore because we categorize ourselves and differentiate ourselves from one another. That's something that I learned. That's a healing that was ignited at Standing Rock on those front lines those first days.

Before Standing Rock, I'd never built a fire. I'd never slept in a tent. I grew up in the city, but I was out there living where my ancestors roamed. I worked the front gate for 8 hours, 10 hours straight on some days and we'd see hundreds of people come and go. I got to meet all these people and shake their hands and get personal with them. It was so amazing. They'd have pow wows, they'd wake us up every morning. We'd go down to the river and we'd make tobacco offerings and we pray. We would go around at night at dinner time, and we would trade stories, and we'd trade songs, and trade food. Just do things that you don't get the opportunity to do in this day and age anymore. It was like its own little city.

Then I remember the security came with their guns and they had big high-powered rifles. More and more people came in, and the security started getting tighter and tighter, bringing more people, more guns. It started becoming intense, but as Lakota people and Dakota people we said, "We are in ceremony and we're supposed to stay in prayer." In our spiritual way of life, prayer is reverence. You don't go against that. If we say, "We're going to do this whole stand as a ceremony and a prayer," then that means we're not going to have violence. We're not going to have drugs. We're not going to have alcohol. We're going to conduct ourselves like we're in one of our sacred ceremonies. That's how we were and that was really important to us.

So many people at Standing Rock were like, "I just got this feeling that I needed to be here, and I needed to come and do this." So many people left important jobs, lives, all this stuff. There were so many volunteers who were willing to be arrested just for the cause. Every few days we were having actions, severe actions, where we would go get chased by cops, get pepper sprayed, gas, all kinds of stuff by the police. But even on the front lines, everybody stuck together and really learned how to be together again.

I would help out on the front line with my ATV, evacuating people because they were injured, because they were terrified, because they were traumatized by law enforcement, chasing them down in military vehicles, gassing them, spraying them, hitting them with batons, pointing loaded guns at them. I remember evacuating elderly women that were screaming, crying.They were so traumatized and so scared that they clung onto me and each other, like four or five deep on one ATV, just clinging to each other until we were at safety.

I remember another time, some people wrapped their hands in red ribbon and sage, and they jumped the fence while DPO security pointed rifles at them. They ran all the way to the river. They were scared because they had live rounds pointed at them like they were being hunted. I think that the hardest part for me was understanding that we could lose our lives because of big oil interests.

I was one of the first people to be arrested. I got arrested again in September and then the third time I got arrested was October 27th. The very first day when we got arrested, the pipeline people were like, "Okay, the tractors are going to come through here, and they're going to cut to this fence. They're going to build it up and make it so the trucks can come in." We're like, "No, they're not, we're not moving." They would try to psych us out by changing the construction date. Then one day they really did come. They had so many officers. They took this orange vinyl fence thing, and they pushed us back. I remember one cool, for lack of a better term or whatever, some cool white dude. He was like, "Let's lock arms. Let's lock arms and not let him push us."

There were a lot of people and the cops were pushing us, and somebody went down. I remember picking him back up, and I was like, "Get up, get up. You can't go down. Just lock arms and stand strong." Then they just started plucking us out of the crowd: "You come here, you're getting arrested."

Towards the end of August, I met Heath, my cousin's brother-in-law. He's just one of those people where you're like, "Dang, this is Mr. Nice Guy. He's so helpful." He’d take our clothes and wash them and all this stuff. I was just in a very vulnerable place in my life and he was always cool. He came outside of my tent, played the flute, and just seemed like a really respectful person.

He was from the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara tribes. That's the three affiliated tribes that sell the oil off their land to the oil company. His brother was a cop and he lived with his mom in Madan, and he would come down all the time but he never went to actions. He was always like, "I have to work," when it was time for action. He contributed a lot financially, probably with the money the Feds paid him.

Heath started coming around more and more. I would be at the front gate all day and he'd come by after work and just hang out. Then he started offering to do the fire for the ceremonies. Then he made friends with all of us that weren't related to him through marriage. My cousins, my aunt whose daughter married his brother, they never said "Watch out for this guy." We were all camped together in this one little circle.

I didn't think twice. Did the notion that he was an infiltrator for the Feds ever cross my mind? No, but it should have. And that's what the Federal government and governments are capable of. Putting someone in there who could pretend to be so honourable, making fire for our sweat lodge, bringing wood.

I later found out that Heath wasn't even approached by the FBI. He volunteered to be an infiltrator way before the camp started building. Fortunately, I never put him in a position where he had too much information or anything. My uncle was head of security and when we would have meetings Heath was never around.

The day I got arrested we ate some dinner, then went to my trailer and put gas in my ATV. Heath gave me my backpack. I put on my black and white American Indian Movement jacket and then he tried to jump on the ATV with me.

He wanted to give me his jacket, and I was like, "I already have a jacket." He's like, "It's cold and you're going to be driving on that thing." I was like, "All right." I was just like, snap, snap, snap, fast, just trying to hurry up and get out of there. Then I went to the front line and he never came, which was really confusing to me. I didn't know where he was until I saw the aerial video footage when we were filing my case a year later.

As I headed back to the front line, I saw my aunt Phyllis looking so distressed. She pulled her car right up to the front line, right in the middle of the street and moved all the protesters out of the way. Before I got off my ATV, I put on my gas mask, because they were spraying people. I was like, "Auntie, what's wrong? Is everything okay?" She's like, "They shot a young boy off of a horse. He got injured, and I'm tired of this. They're getting carried away now. They're hurting our children." We turned around, she got out of the car, and she started telling the police, "I want something done about this. You guys are going overboard. We're here peacefully."

I said, "Yes, we're praying for each of you." I remember waving my hand at them. It was me standing about three-quarters of a car's distance away from the line of police. Our security was in between, so it wasn't a face-to-face confrontation with the police.

Then I turned to go back to my ATV and that's when I got tackled. They tackled me so hard – I remember trying to struggle and panicking. I didn't even hear the shots being fired.

There were a lot of officers on top of me. One had his knee so hard on my throat that I think I lost consciousness at some point. In the video, you see my legs just go straight out. I remember one of the officers said, "Are you okay? Can you breathe?" Then I said, "Yes." He goes, "Okay, I'm going to cuff you now." I just laid there. They handcuffed me. Then when they stood me up, one of the white cops had a smile on his face and said, "Oh, yes, now you're going to jail for attempted murder on police officers. How do you feel about that?"

I just looked at him and I didn't say anything. I didn't say anything the whole way to jail. I didn't say anything to anybody until I talked to my uncle. They put me in a cell by myself. I just kept praying and praying and praying and I didn't know what was going to happen. They never did gunshot residue tests on me, they never tested my clothing. They just left me in the cell and they put me in general population. Then I was able to make a call two days later.

At that point, I still didn't know what happened. I didn't know anything. I just knew I was in jail and it was serious. When everything just started unravelling and coming into play it was surreal, that's the only way I can describe it. They said I shot a gun three times from underneath me, somehow without shooting myself or shooting any of the six officers that were on top of me. They all weigh in at 250 or more and I literally weighed 110 pounds. I never wielded a gun, shot a gun, let alone while I'm facedown on the ground. They said that it came flying out while they were arresting me. But they never fingerprinted the gun and they never did a gunpowder residue test on me.

We had aerial footage of Heath who was there. He was standing way back behind me. There were police and Federal ATF agents convened up a little ways north and that's where he signaled to them. In the footage, you can see the ATF agent walk over from the front line of the police and tap Heath on the shoulder. Then Heath pointed me out. That's why I was arrested. That's why they grabbed me.

The charges against me included attempted murder on the police, and a gun theft charge which was really confusing. I didn't even have a gun that day. We went into court and then I found out the gun theft charge was from Heath. I thought, “Why would he say I stole his gun? He knows damn well I didn't steal his gun." I called him on the phone and I'm like, "What the fuck, dude? I just went to court for gun theft and in the affidavit, it says that you said I went up to your house to wash clothes and that I dug through your drawers and stole your gun."

He said, "That's what my lawyer advised me to say or do because otherwise, I'm going to be found liable because of what happened."

A couple of days later the public defender came and saw me. He told me that the affidavit said that Heath’s FBI handler told him to go make the missing gun and theft report, and so that's what he did.

I found out he got paid $16,000 by the FBI.

We have pictures that the protectors took of what was happening when I was arrested. But there should have been all this video evidence. There's a lady with a camera, video cameras, a police officer standing right above me while I'm being arrested and everybody's wearing body cams. When we asked for this video evidence and they said there was none. They must have just deleted it. They gave us a bunch of useless stuff that wasn't even around the timeline of me getting arrested. They said that their batteries died and that they went through the videos and that there wasn’t any relevant information.

My public defender told me I could get a deal if I told them who the camp leaders were. I refused. I went into federal custody and I ended up taking a plea bargain to drop the 15 to life charge, which was a consecutive sentence for discharging a firearm during a violent crime. I pled to civil disorder and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. I got 57 months in federal prison, which is four years and nine months.

For some people, Standing Rock was like, “Oh my God, I went to Standing Rock. I'm a water protector. I got this tattoo." For me, I went to Standing Rock and I lost four years of life with my son. My uncle kept telling me, "Don't internalize any of this. Whatever they say in court, whatever they're saying about you, don’t believe them. No matter what their court of law says, we have spiritual law. The Creator's going to take care of you because he knows what's in your heart."

I served four and a half years, and I have three years of federal probation, but I'm petitioning for early release in like a week or two. Hopefully, I'll get it because I've done everything that I'm supposed to do above and beyond. I sit on two nonprofit boards, one for a healing center, which is Cuetlachtepetl Wolf Mountain, and we offer an opportunity for people to come to learn about wolves and heal with them and build a relationship with our wolf relatives.

Then I sit on the board of Four Winds Indian Council. That is an organization that opens a space for people to come and have ceremonies and funerals. It's just a building, it's a liberated zone. We have a garden and we have a women's empowerment project which is a house where we allow women to come and live until they get back on their feet.

I also work for Servicios de la Raza, which is a nonprofit organization, which means services for the people. It's a 50-year-old organization that was founded in the north side of Denver where I grew up. I work for them as a state opioid response grant peer navigator, and so I help people get into treatment and get on their path to recovery.

I also founded the Defend All Things sacred pow wow, which is a thank you pow wow that's held once a year on Labor Day weekend. It's a three-day pow wow and it's to bring our community together, to honor our elders, and to say thank you for all the solidarity that was shown throughout my incarceration.


Extinction Rebellion, Sudan

I'm Rose. I’m from Sudan and I’m 27 years old.

I've been a nature lover since I was little, and I began to feel that there was a really big problem with the climate. Rain fell out of season, temperatures were rising, crops were failing, and livestock were suffering. I also began to wonder why cancer cases in Sudan were steadily rising, and why we had increasing numbers of children born with birth defects.

School didn’t give the climate crisis the attention it deserved. They would talk about the rising temperatures and the ozone hole, but that was it. They never explained the implications of the crisis.

So I started looking for answers. I came across many climate conferences and lots of summits where heads of state would talk and talk and talk, but they would do nothing immediately and concretely to change things on the ground. Then, at the end of 2018, I came across reporting on Extinction Rebellion (XR) in Britain, and I found out they were doing actions and protests about what was happening. I realized the objectives of XR were aligned with what I was thinking as well.

So, on January 2, 2019, I started an Extinction Rebellion chapter in Sudan.

I started meeting with groups of young people trying to expose the ideas of XR and explaining some concepts of the climate situation to those who were interested. And once I found a group of interested people we started mainly campaigning to raise awareness of the dangers of climate change, focusing on universities in Khartoum, which is the capital of Sudan.

We also campaigned in primary schools, trying to teach children the importance of the environment through activities like planting trees. When COVID-19 hit, we also campaigned about how to respond to COVID-19.

We participated with other initiatives in Sudan around the floods that happened in August of 2021. And we organized an activity around the G7 summit last year, as well as around the international day for environment, land, and water.

We mainly did awareness raising and education. Students were responding and protesting and we were gathering momentum. We would talk about issues like what gold mining companies are doing, what toxic products they are using on our soil, and also about how radioactive waste is buried in many areas and regions of Sudan. We were trying to take our activities out into the streets. There were a lot of protests already happening in Sudan and we wanted to put climate issues on the agenda at these larger gatherings, and we were getting traction.

There were protests about mining companies in a place called Talodi. The companies are not Sudanese companies, they are mainly Russian and from the United Arab Emirates, but in Sudan they are being managed and protected by militias. These are forces called the Rapid Support Forces, a special unit which belongs to the state security. In Arabic they are known as Janjaweed. The Janjaweed are the ones managing and protecting these companies.

And of course the government has a financial interest in the work of these companies. Many of the people who participated in these protests against the mining company were targeted, arrested, disappeared, and some were even killed.

There was an Italian researcher, a woman, who was working in Khartoum University, and she had a project called “Climate and Immigration.” She wanted me to collaborate with her on her project and research in some way.

I met her on the university campus. After our meeting, I went to the student activity center and there was a large group of students discussing the political situation.

This is a space to talk, so I presented on the topic of the mining companies. Then, as I was leaving the campus, a group of guys came up to me. They were in civilian clothing. They had a similar car to a police car — like it was the type of vehicle you see when you are about to be arrested, but it didn’t have plates.

They couldn’t arrest me in front of all of the students, so they tried to convince me to go with them. I felt that something was really off, so I ran away.

The next day, I went to Omdurman with two of my friends to visit a local library and bookstore and to put some posters up in the local market. I saw the same group of people from the other day at the university. At that point I started feeling that I was in danger, that someone was seriously following what we were doing.

On October 25th, 2021, there was a military coup. There was a huge gathering, and we attended it to talk about the crimes against the environment. There were four of us. The Rapid Response Forces started firing at people, and we were being targeted. They were coming at us, and shooting at us, and one of my friends was shot and died that day. His name was Mohamed Abdel Rahim Al Sauodi.

The other three of us disappeared among the protesters and we managed to get away that day. Then on the 28th of October, we went to our friend's funeral, and all three of us were arrested at the funeral. We were incarcerated in a new prison called Soba Prison that was built mainly for political prisoners, and which is managed by the militias.

They would fill the floor with water, and had pipes to let insects and dirt in. The conditions were so bad that you couldn’t sleep. In the beginning it was quite empty but after a while it began to get very crowded as they were arresting a lot of people.

For the first week they didn’t bring in the other political prisoners of the resistance and the opposition, so it was pretty much just us. We were subjected to interrogations by the intelligence service of the Rapid Support Forces.

They brought in pre-filled forms and they would ask us questions but not wait to hear the answers. And when the interrogation was done, they forced us to fingerprint these forms and sign things we never said. Each one of us were accused of a number of serious crimes, things we had never even heard about including organizing a terrorist organization, working against the interests of the state, being in touch with foreign entities, and espionage. Very, very serious crimes of state security.

Then, on the 21st of November, they just opened the prisons and we left with many of the other prisoners, with no special procedures, no nothing.

But then on that same day, late at night, they came back for us, asking around, asking for us by name, looking for us individually. I started receiving phone calls from neighbors, friends, and family. Everyone was asking me: “What did you do, what has happened?”

I had to flee. I looked for a really isolated place, far away, and I hid myself there. I am still in hiding.

Daniel McGowan

Earth Liberation Front

My name is Daniel McGowan. I am from Queens, New York. I'm 48 years old. I'm a former political prisoner and I did seven years in prison for actions I took with the Earth Liberation Front in the early 2000s. I now work as a paralegal.

I got involved in activism during my time at a study abroad program in Southeast Asia. When I was there, I met this guy at a bar or cafe and we were talking, and he was from a group that I think still exists called Earth Rights International. They were doing work in Burma, now Myanmar, where just a few years prior to that there was a coup. The State Law and Order Restoration Committee, which is the name of their dictatorship, had been going into the Burmese forests and logging, and really being a menace to the various hill tribes that lived in the Burmese forests. I had never really seen the intersection of human rights and environmental work. It was really interesting. I came home and I was like, "I want to do environmental activism."

We were told about the ozone layer and greenhouse gasses in the '80s. On TV, I saw actions taken to protect whales by Greenpeace and groups like that. I always thought that was really cool, but I'm from a really small neighborhood and I never thought I could do anything like that. So I came back to the United States after my study abroad trip and I tried my best to find groups doing environmental activism.

I ran into this lady at the Union Square greenmarket who was getting signatures for spaying and neutering becoming a law or something. I remember her telling me I should check out wetlands. I was like, "Wetlands, what the hell is that? We have wetlands in New York City?" She's like, "No, it's the name of a club." She told me Wetlands was a bar on the Lower East Side that also had an environmental center. I was like, “Well, that sounds pretty cool.” I remember getting out of my totally square job at this PR agency still in work clothes — in khakis and a button-down shirt — looking just like a young kid that the cops would send. And they were so paranoid there. Just paranoid to any newcomers. I showed up and I went to this meeting about animal rights. I was vegetarian at the time and I remember I saw this video and it was so horrific that I became vegan at that moment. There were people coming in, and they were talking about protests and using all these terms like “direct action.” I had no idea what they were talking about. There was a person who came in and she was like, "I just got back from Yorkies," which apparently was a primate research center in Atlanta. She showed a video on VHS, because it was 1997, of people at this protest and just fucking shit up and attacking a cop car and trying to get into the primate research center to do I'm not really sure what. But at the time I was like, "This is cool, man." That was the animal rights action team meeting. They had a meeting every Tuesday and it was about different issues and they had different speakers.

When Earth First groups were on little road tours, they'd stop in and tell you about what was going on out west. I got fully immersed in that world and ended up going to the Earth First gathering, getting arrested, and spending a week in jail. It was wild, but that was my introduction to activism: just totally on the radical direct action side. They didn't use the word “intersectional” there, but their whole idea of it was that there was “one struggle.”

Wetlands was a protest machine. They just protested everywhere. I went to more protests in 1997 and '98 than I have been to since. I remember there'd be times that multiple protest targets would be in the same neighborhood and we would literally bring our signs for both protests.

I got arrested in front of Mitsubishi headquarters and Madison Avenue on 49th street. I got arrested at Home Depot in Red Hook. It was all mostly about old growth logging and stuff like that. After a while, I decided to go out west. I wanted to work on this campaign called Headwaters, which is in Northern California. It's privately owned, old-growth logging. But when I arrived, they told me that the campaign was shut down and they were in mourning and figuring out what was next. There was a kid named David Chain who got killed by a logger.

I ended up going into this cafe with my friend David and we ran into a guy who was involved in throwing pies as political theater. And I was like, "If you need someone to throw a pie, just let me know. Here's my friend's number." We get home and there's a message: "Hey, you should go up to this party in Berkeley." "Berkeley? Where the fuck is Berkeley?" We ended up going to this party and at the party they were like, "Yo, we want you to pie this guy." I'm like, "Who is it?" They said, "It's the president of the Sierra Club." It was all from people that worked at the Sierra Club that were just dissidents who were just pissed off. I did it and got away with it, and I did another pie in action two months later. I ended up catching a case for that one. I got arrested on the Berkeley campus, while I was pieing the head of a biotech corporation called Novartis.

Anyhow, we had been hearing about the World Trade Organization and I didn't really know much about it, but we heard they were meeting in Seattle, which was such a weird spot to be meeting. I went up to Seattle with some friends, and we started squatting in these buildings in various neighborhoods and just got plugged into the local anarchist scene there. I ended up getting into a very large affinity group. We didn’t know what we were going to do. We had a few ideas, but they all fell through, and we ended up doing our fallback option, which was just going into the streets, rampaging and targeting corporate property. Two of our friends got arrested by undercovers. Cops pepper sprayed us and dropped tear gas in the middle of our group. I stayed in Seattle for a couple of weeks until my friends got bailed out and then left.

After that I ended up going to the Earth First! Journal, and somehow hooking up with an Earth Liberation Front cell. I use that term very loosely, it's just a way of describing a group of people. It wasn't an organization with a PO Box. At the time, I had already engaged in a lot of property destruction regarding genetically modified organisms so I pushed hard for us to focus on that. Most of my focus for the next two and a half years was on GMOs and old-growth forests. I took part in two arsons, and I took part in a bunch of other actions with the ELF people.

We targeted corporations that were logging ancient forests and that were promoting genetically modified organisms and genetically modified trees. And the long and short of it is that I felt like we were putting the cart before the horse. We were ahead of the movement, and we were hoping that people would mimic what we were doing. But we ended up doing our direct actions so well that I think people were intimidated and didn't end up mimicking us.

There are two actions I can talk about. In one, I was the lookout for an arson of a logging company called Superior Lumber in Southern Oregon. We didn't go after their mill. We went after their administrative offices. Obviously, these are things that we did when nobody was there; we knew that by watching them over and over and knowing what the schedule was.

We watched them and secured the spot before setting incendiary devices that were designed to burn and not explode. We usually did everything really big so that we would have an impact before the fire trucks came. We only went after buildings that weren’t attached to other buildings, so there was no threat to people, animals, or humans. That was on January 1, 2000, I believe.

The second was May, 2001. It was at a tree farm in Northwest Oregon that we believed was involved in growing genetically modified trees.

That one was big because two actions happened that night, one in Washington and one in Oregon. In Oregon we went after three different properties on the same site, including an open-air garage of 15 trucks, and then two offices. In one of the offices, the devices failed. The other ones both went off, but it was super intense. We used a lot of gasoline and it was just a very intense action. I think it was the fumes that got to me and I was just like, "This is insane. This is an insane way to be going about stuff."

I had been having problems, and the group had internal divisions that were manifesting and so it seemed like a time to say bye. I did that with the caveat that I would never tell anyone about it. I was just going to carry it with me, which I did and still do.

Direct action and DIY politics are good, but I don't view them as the only way of doing things. I just viewed it that lobbying and begging the politicians to do something different has not been working so what are we going to do? I still feel that way.

I thought taking action was my responsibility as a young, relatively healthy white guy, and compared to the rest of the world, affluent fucking person. I didn't have the same level of fear, I just felt that it was necessary to do what we can, that everyone has to give their all and this was what I was doing. What can I do to obstruct these monsters?

It's a little simplistic for sure. On some level, it's a little bit like throwing your body on the machine, and it has its cost that I didn't realize at the time, although I obviously knew that incarceration or death was a possibility. What I didn't realize is that there would be this massive terrorist attack that would give the US government millions and millions of dollars to then go back and pay people to build cases, which is what they did. It was a cold case review.

So I went back to New York. One day I was at work and getting ready to leave and there was a guy standing in the doorway. He said my name, I was just like, "Oh, shit." He covered the ground between the cubicle and my body in two seconds. I was on the desk and he was like, "You're going back to Oregon." When he said Oregon, I was just like, "Oh, shit." That was it.

I ended up going out west and I spent two months in jail before I got bailed out. I fought my case for about a year and a half. I was facing a maximum of life plus 30 years in prison because anytime they use the word terrorism to describe any of your charges it usually carries a bigger penalty. I ended up going to sentencing, asking for five years, and the government asked for 10 years, and I got seven. I got seven years, $1.9 million for restitution, and the federal crime of terrorism enhancement, which was then used to put me at special so-called terrorist units in the Bureau of Prisons.

I think the reason that they were so hard on us was that we were attacking something that the state holds sacrosanct, which is property. They find actions like this shocking because it's not a bunch of drunk college kids destroying shit with no politics. That kind of destruction is not a disagreement with the status quo. Essentially what we were doing was calling bullshit both on the fact that inanimate objects matter and on the belief that we have to destroy our environment because people need jobs.

The other thing is that they were also always petrified of people copying us. And that was part of our thing: we wanted people to copy us. At the end of the day, it really truly is in people's hands, what happens.

I feel like we were treated harshly because the case was political. It went all the way to DC and everything that the local prosecution did had to be fucking justified by Alberto Gonzalez and George Bush. The Joint Terrorism Task Force were the people that prosecuted us and investigated the case. That’s a mixture of the FBI, the DEA, the IRS, it’s everyone, it's all them working together. They went through our lives, they went through our accounts and paperwork and stuff. They raided my apartment, they took everything.

I got arrested five years after the actions. What happened was a person in my case got in trouble with the law. He wore a wiretap and he came out to New York. I ran into him at a conference, which should have given me pause, right? I pretty much incriminated myself on the recordings. Unfortunately, my goose was cooked because I implicated myself in these actions.

I was sent to a “Communication Management Unit” in Terre Haute, Indiana and Marion, Illinois. But they should have been called “communication restriction units,” self-contained units where people with high profile cases were held, and not allowed to communicate with the rest of the prison. We were only allowed one phone call a week at first. It had to be at a scheduled time and it was monitored live. Our visits were non-contact through glass. We found out later through Freedom of Information Act requests and our lawsuit that an agency in West Virginia called the Counter-Terrorist Unit was monitoring our communications. The mail was squatted on very heavily. A lot of stuff was rejected. I got all kinds of shit rejected, like political stuff more than anything.

They established the units after the Inspector General said that people at the super max were in contact with the Madrid bombers. They established the units before they were legal, and filled them up mostly with Muslims. I was in a unit with all these really interesting people, which was cool actually. It just felt really oppressive to be kept in this one place. We couldn't go anywhere and we were far from home. It was miserable for a long period of time.

We eventually pushed back, ended up with two phone calls a week and two visits a month. They were short visits and it's hard to ask people to come to Indiana to visit you for four hours and sit in a fucking booth. I used up all my phone calls, and we eventually got access to email. At a certain point I got out of one of the CMUs and I was transferred to general population.

I filed a lawsuit and they put me back in another Communication Management Unit. I was in a CMU for 48 months out of my sentence.

I met really interesting people in there, people that were in for so-called “material aids to support terrorism.” Some of them were in for just running charities. I met the kid that the movie Captain Phillips was based on, the Somali pirate. He's a really nice guy and was basically a minor. I also met the people from the Holy Land Foundation who were given really bad sentences for essentially just being a Muslim charity. They had provided soccer balls and blankets for children in Gaza and the government accused them of aiding Hamas by doing that.

After prison, I started working on two non-profits. One is called New York City Books Through Bars, which sends books to people in prison. We've been working for 22 years and we send free books and educational materials to people in 40 different states. We're located out of a bookstore’s basement in Brooklyn. We gather tons of donations and hustle books and then send them to people in prison, which sounds pretty simplistic but we send a massive amount of books and we send them to individuals. We tend to prioritize people that are in New York, but also people that are in super maxes that have no access to good books. We send people really what they ask for to the extent that we can.

The second project I work for is a calendar called Certain Days. It's a calendar started by three political prisoners from upstate New York state prisons, all of whom are out right now. Herman Bell, Seth Hayes, and David Gilbert. It's an educational calendar but it also has all this beautiful art in it, every year around a central theme. We donate the funds that we raise to different social justice groups.