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Know Your Rights When the FBI Knocks

You’re an aboveboard activist, passionate about the environment and willing to speak up and get heard. Then one day the FBI comes knocking on your door. What do you do? 

You don’t talk to them, and you don’t let it scare you away from being an activist, says Lauren Regan of the Civil Liberties Defense Center. She says activists and others need to know their rights because “you just have to look at the mainstream news to hear all the different ways the government is spying on people — using more money than brain cells on spying,” she says. 

On Oct. 30, two FBI agents knocked on the door of Kayla Godowa Tufti’s west Eugene home. When her uncle told them she wasn’t available, one of them, Agent Timothy Suttles, left his card. They returned later in the week and told Godowa Tufti’s uncle they wanted to chat with her about something she might have witnessed. Regan says that’s a common tactic of federal agents doing a “knock and talk” — telling the relatives their activist family member could help solve a crime.

There are three main things to remember if a federal agent comes knocking at your door, according to Regan. First of all, you don’t have to talk to them. “The number one most important thing is that ‘we the people’ never ever have to answer any question put to us by anyone in law enforcement,” she says. The only one who can force you to talk is a judge in a courtroom. 

Second, if you do talk, have a lawyer present, because “You need not only advice and counsel, you also need a witness to verify you did in fact say that the sun rises in east if law enforcement writes down that you said it sets in the west.” Otherwise she says it’s just your word against the officer’s.

 Finally, law enforcement can legally lie and can tell you or a family member any number of things to get you to talk.

When EW asked about a possible investigation, FBI public information officer Elizabeth Steele said that under the Department of Justice guidelines, “We are not permitted to discuss what may or may not be an investigation.” 

Godowa Tufti says she didn’t witness anything. She called Regan and the CLDC for help and legal representation. When Regan spoke to the FBI, she was told that they were investigating because Godowa Tufti had been seen taking pictures at the Kinder Morgan petroleum products terminal in Eugene near her home. Godowa Tufti, who is a columnist for EW, says she was working on a piece about the terminal and its oil pipeline. That column is slated to run in an upcoming issue.

“I have been in opposition to multinational oil corporations, an advocate for treaty rights and indigenous issues in my territory for a number of years now,” Godowa Tufti said in a statement. She is a member of the Warm Springs Tribe.

On Oct. 29, the day before the FBI knocked on her door, she testified passionately against a proposed Tesoro Savage oil terminal in Vancouver, Wash., and criticized the Port of Vancouver for not consulting treaty rights holders on the Columbia River. The port had unanimously voted to grant a ten-year permit to the oil company, and the Washington Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council has begun a yearlong process to evaluate the proposal.

Despite what the FBI said about Kinder Morgan, Godowa Tufti still wonders if there was a connection to her outspoken activism on climate justice.

According to Portland Rising Tide member Trip Jennings and other activists who attended the hearing, Godowa Tufti appeared to go slightly over time in her remarks to the panel at the hearing and was cut off by the chairman. When she went to finish her statement, security was called. Another speaker tried to cede her time to Godowa Tufti but was refused and the audience, made up almost entirely of oil-export opponents, called for Godowa Tufti, the sole tribal member testifying, to be allowed to finish. Jennings says, “It looked like people were standing up to get in between the cops and Kayla, which would have been an intense experience at a hearing.” Godowa Tufti chose to leave the podium. 

Jennings says that Portland Rising Tide has not experienced as much door knocking as Seattle Rising Tide — a newer organization. He says one function of FBI door knocking is to chill nascent activism. Jennings thinks that’s because it’s harder to intimidate a more established activist group. “It doesn’t take much to send ripples through the community and have a chilling effect on resistance,” he says. “We don’t see them focusing on established groups like Portland Rising Tide, I think because it takes more to have to have a ripple effect on the community.”

Godowa Tufti says, “The oil companies and the FBI work very closely in alliance with each other to regulate any threats the public may impose upon their billion dollar extraction and export operations, operations that directly violate our treaty and spiritual laws as indigenous people of the Columbia River.” 

She says that having the FBI knocking at her door will not deter her from activism: “It is now our responsibility as treaty rights holders to use our federal and international indigenous rights to regulate the self-regulated corporations that appropriate, destroy our homelands and poison our waters for their corporate profits.”

She calls the FBI door knocking “harassment,” saying it’s “only business as usual, a mere intimidation tactic that will not be successful because we have a greater mission to accomplish.”

The Civil Liberties Defense Center conducts frequent “know your rights” trainings and Regan recommends that anyone who is contacted by the FBI call the CLDC at 687-9180, visit cldc.org, or contact another civil liberties organization.