“Friendly” or “Not Friendly”; Did Interior Leadership Downplay Threat by Climate Protesters Leading up to Violent Altercation at HQ?

“Friendly” or “Not Friendly”; Did Interior Leadership Downplay Threat by Climate Protesters Leading up to Violent Altercation at HQ?

  • January 30, 2023
Department leadership had prior evidence situation could deteriorate

Today, ethics watchdog Protect the Public’s Trust highlighted shocking details surrounding the violent October 14, 2021, climate protest outside of, and inside, the Department of the Interior (DOI) headquarters. Documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) reveal DOI officials had more than sufficient knowledge of the intentions of climate demonstrators who attempted to occupy the main Interior building (MIB) in Washington D.C and that key officials were kept in the dark.

In October 2021, a coalition of groups known as ‘People vs. Fossil Fuels’ swarmed outside DOI headquarters for a climate sit-in. Interior officials expressed surprise at the protest, though emails between officials at DOI show leadership was aware. Records obtained by PPT reveal Interior leadership knew of the demonstration days before it occurred. MIB security was also warned by the United States Park Police of the anticipated protest six days prior to the incident, “I would recommend just letting your people know that events will be occurring and maybe be a bit more vigilant for pre-operational stuff.”

Not only were officials warned through MIB security, but FOIA documents reveal DOI Director of Intergovernmental and External Affairs Shantha Alonso met with protestors in the days leading up to the demonstration, and received a flashdrive from one of them. DOI leadership also received word in advance that the protest could potentially get out of hand. In fact, a press conference scheduled for the day before was called off by an “organizer” because of fear of violence by some of the groups that were going to participate.

Yet on the day of the protests, as protesters were breaching security, DOI Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations Mili Gosar was unaware of the violent nature, evidenced by her text to other members of the leadership, “I’m sure they are friendly, and everything is fine, but just wanted to pass along the message in case anyone is trying to head out to lunch or anything like that!”

Interior’s Director of Communications, Melissa Schwartz, quickly responded to inform that the protestors were “not friendly.”

Dozens of protestors were able to breach security and find their way inside. According to the Interior Operations Center, “A contingent of the demonstrators entered the facility and handcuffed themselves to the doors of the building.” Those who were stopped by security attempted to shove through, which ultimately lead to a violent altercation. Multiple security personnel were injured in the clash, with one officer sustaining wounds that required transport to a hospital. According to news reports at the time, fifty-five protesters were arrested during the riot.

One of the groups participating in the October protest was the Pueblo Action Alliance (PAA), an organization that boasts of Secretary Haaland’s daughter, Somah Haaland, among its leadership. Recent reports indicate the younger Haaland traveled to the nation’s capital this past December to lobby Congress on behalf of the PAA. Watchdog groups warned of the potential conflict of interest Somah’s participation in lobbying on issues overseen by the elder Haaland created for the Secretary. This is in addition to the controversial past ties of current Director of the Bureau of Land Management Tracy Stone-Manning to a radical environmental organization.

“With the connections of members of DOI leadership to groups many consider on the radical fringes of the environmental movement, it’s not surprising the Department might consider such organizations to be their friends and attempt to downplay the potential for situations to get out of hand,” stated Michael Chamberlain, Director of Protect the Public’s Trust. “But the circumstances around the riot at Interior headquarters represent yet another instance in which an administration that promised a return to normalcy is producing anything but. Meanwhile, the American public’s trust in its government continues its precipitous decline.”