Property destruction: a legitimate response to colonialism and climate chaos?

James Wilt
Damaged heavy equipment following an alleged attack on the Coastal GasLink pipeline facility on Wet’suwet’en territory near Houston, British Columbia, February 17, 2022. Handout photo courtesy BC RCMP.

Feb. 18, 2022

Militant direct action is an essential component of our fight against fossil capital

In the early hours of Thursday, February 17, a group of approximately 20 people allegedly attacked a Coastal GasLink (CGL) construction site on Wet’suwet’en territory in the northwest region of British Columbia. According to the RCMP, the “masked individuals” used an assortment of axes, flares, smoke bombs, and booby traps to destroy several pieces of heavy machinery including an excavator, and attacked security guards and other workers. One police officer was reportedly injured after he “walked over a board with spikes in it.” Despite the scale and impact of the alleged attack—with costs already estimated in the millions of dollars—there have been no suspects identified or arrests made.

Photos released by the company document intense and seemingly unbelievable levels of property destruction: a building shredded, a massive excavator on its side, large pieces of industrial equipment ripped into pieces. Unsurprisingly, such impacts were immediately denounced by CGL, police, and high-ranking politicians at every level of government, along with providing the right wing punditry with some much-needed content for their outrage machines.





There’s no question that Wet’suwet’en land defenders and their allies are being tacitly blamed for the act, with some reports invoking racial tropes of “primitive” weaponry, incredible strength, and attackers melting back into the dark forest like ghosts. BC Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth explicitly labeled it a “troubling escalation” (implying existing protest) while the RCMP described it as “devious” and “evil.”

In reaction to the clearly coordinated timing of media statements by police, CGL, and politicians, along with the sheer scale of the damage and the lack of suspects, some on the left have jumped to conclude the event is very likely a false flag operation: a cunning set-up to exploit the newly won Emergencies Act powers to further usurp Indigenous title and potentially win some insurance payouts in the face of skyrocketing costs.





There’s plenty of precedent for this conclusion, as well, with the RCMP sporting a lengthy track record of so-called “dirty tricks” campaigns including the bombing of a shed as a means of framing alleged saboteur Wiebo Ludwig. While Wet’suwet’en land defenders have leveraged minor property destruction in the past as a tactic, it has never been anything close to the level of destruction at the CGL site What’s more, Indigenous leadership in the territory have clearly stated they have no knowledge of the attack.

While there’s certainly a chance the destruction of the CGL site was a false-flag operation, we have next to no independent information about what happened or who was involved, particularly given the stunning absence of any kind of surveillance or phone footage. But as others have already started to ask: what if it wasn’t? What if Indigenous land defenders or their allies did in fact execute a highly sophisticated act of property destruction that struck immediately at the heart of CGL’s bottom line? What if—and this is the crux of it, really—such an attack is a perfectly rational and defensible response to settler-colonial genocide? What then?

“In whose interests are acts of Indigenous resistance diminished?”

Like many people, my first response to hearing about this alleged attack was to regard it as a set-up, including retweeting threads documenting the probability of direct police involvement. The level of damage, captured by photos of an enormous excavator turned on its side, felt too improbable to believe. But something felt off.

It wasn’t until I read Métis and Cree writer Mike Gouldhawke’s tweets about the fictitious dichotomy between “violent” and “non-violent” action that it clicked, particularly his observation: “Liberals say everything is an attempt to smear peaceful resistance. They never admit it might be an attempt to smear effective or militant resistance.” This was shortly followed by a Twitter post of a statement made by Kwakwaka’wakw artist Gord Hill on Facebook, in which he asked: “In whose interests are acts of Indigenous resistance diminished rather than promoted?”





To reiterate: nobody (or very few of us) knows the precise details of what happened. But there’s a decent chance that, like Hill wrote in his post, “the attack was carried out by Indigenous people who, in the cold dead of night, set out on a mission to sabotage the CGL pipeline.” And this is something that the radical left should—in fact, must—support as a legitimate tactic, regardless of whether it turns out this was a false flag or not. In fact, the very power of this action potentially being a false flag is directly derived from the prevailing assumption that such an attack, including against white pipeline workers, would ultimately be illegitimate and counterproductive.

These are the same tensions that surfaced when, in the wake of the discovery of thousands of unmarked graves at residential school sites across Canada, several churches were burned to the ground. Likewise, as part of Indigenous-led uprisings across the country, many statues of colonizers were torn down and destroyed. While distinct in character, all of these militant actions were similarly regarded by many as undermining “reconciliation,” or condemned as the work of agent provocateurs seeking to ratchet up oppression of Indigenous peoples.

These are undoubtedly complex debates. But let’s be clear: if Indigenous peoples did indeed decide to retaliate or protect their lands using so-called “violence”—arson, sabotage, and much more—this would be a highly reasonable, effective, and warranted response to ongoing colonization and the decimation of their nations. It wouldn’t have to be “productive” or “helpful” or whatever definition the white settler left (which I am a part of) would come up with. It would be a response to and refusal of violence.

Settler-colonialism is violence. Residential schools, family separation, and mass incarceration is violence. Ramming a pipeline through Indigenous territory during a climate catastrophe, destroying ancestral relations and economies, is violence. To defend territories from further invasion with property destruction and threatening of workers—if that is indeed what happened—would be an utterly rational decision in line with countless other militant struggles.

mea culpa for Malm

About a year ago, I wrote a fairly blistering review for Canadian Dimension of Swedish scholar Andreas Malm’s new book for Verso, How to Blow Up a Pipeline (unsurprisingly, he responded with his own reasonably vicious retort on the Verso blog, leading me to spend several months sniping at him on Twitter, which he doesn’t use).

While I maintain several of the fundamental critiques expressed in my review—particularly those of Malm’s lack of serious consideration of decades of Indigenous resistance in North America, his underdeveloped conception of social change, and the reckless marketing of the book itself—this particular attack on Wet’suwet’en territory has compelled me to issue a mea culpa of sorts.

My primary concern expressed in my review was about the immense retaliatory consequences of property destruction. I am still concerned about these impacts, of course, and I do think Malm was rather sloppy in addressing them. But my dismissal of Malm’s invocation to property destruction as a key tactic of climate justice movements was petty, wrongheaded, and even cowardly in character (further, alleging that Malm was verging on entrapment was deeply uncomradely; I could reasonably blame poor mental health for such slippage, but won’t).

As he wrote in his rebuttal to me: “the irresponsibility rather lies in spreading the illusion that the climate struggle—of all struggles—could sneak into an exception to the rule and succeed without having to grapple with ferocious repression.” I own that error. There is simply no way that struggles against fossil fuel infrastructure can succeed in any way at the scale and speed we need without the kind of resistance potentially demonstrated on Wet’suwet’en territory at the CGL site yesterday evening.

Whether this was a false flag operation or not, we need to wholeheartedly and unabashedly support this kind of attack in its potentiality. This very clearly doesn’t mean that we should promote reckless and egoistic adventurism or downplay the extreme carceral consequences that will certainly ensue; we can review any number of crackdowns on militant histories to realize the seriousness of this. These must be at the centre of our thinking and organizing, always, particularly given potential impacts on Indigenous, Black, and racialized peoples.

But the alleged attack on Wet’suwet’en territory—along with courageous property destruction by many other groups around the world, like Palestine Action in Britain—should not be dismissed as counterproductive or harmful to the cause. As Malm recounts in his book, and as countless anti-colonial and national liberation struggles have demonstrated, militant direct action is an essential component of the fight against fossil capital. Preemptively curtailing our struggles by designating such action as only within the parameters of the carceral state is to greatly limit our potential effectiveness and undercut the (alleged) actions of comrades engaged in such work.

Refusing the discourse of “violence”

The alleged attack on Wet’suwet’en territory may end up being a false flag. But it may not be either. And the reality that the radical left has to grapple with—and this is something that I fear I have mystified, in some small way, with my review—is that we should support any and all tactics used in anti-colonial, national liberation, and anti-capitalist struggles. This doesn’t mean that anything goes and that there won’t be enormous debate in the process. However, ruling out property destruction (however we define that) on the basis of possible retaliation is underestimating the stakes of the many intersecting crises at hand.

As radical journalists Erin Corbett and Elizabeth King wrote in The Nation in 2018 about opposing the “bad protester” narrative: “when an extreme-right-wing government decides what’s acceptable, and by extension, what liberals will support, more disruptive tactics get labeled as ‘bad.’ Leftist activists who act in self-defense against right wingers, fascists, and police are typically called ‘violent.’ This opens them up to legal charges, harassment, surveillance, and marginalization.”

We need to apply this same learning to our current context. At the core, this means refusing to traffic in the liberal discourse of “violence” and “nonviolence,” recognizing that the colonial state inflicts ceaseless and brutal violence against mostly Indigenous, Black, and racialized peoples. It means showing up to support legal defense funds, incarcerated comrades, and providing other material backing. It requires improving and developing organizational forms that take training, security culture, and discipline intensely seriously.

But most of all, it means being open to the reality that militant responses popularly regarded as “violent” are fully legitimate, effective, and necessary, despite our lingering liberal biases and fears. It’s completely possible to express skepticism about state and capitalist recounting of such actions—and we certainly should, make no mistake—without ceding moral authority in the process to actions that disrupt, destroy, retaliate, and actualize radical alternatives and futures. To delegitimize the spectre of the false flag, we must re-legitimize militant action by accepting it as a real and even desirable possibility.

James Wilt is a freelance journalist and graduate student based in Winnipeg. He is a frequent contributor to CD, and has also written for Briarpatch, Passage, The Narwhal, National Observer, Vice Canada, and the Globe and Mail. James is the author of the recently published book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Cars? Public Transit in the Age of Google, Uber, and Elon Musk (Between the Lines Books). He organizes with the police abolitionist organization Winnipeg Police Cause Harm. You can follow him on Twitter at @james_m_wilt.

[Top photo: Damaged heavy equipment following an alleged attack on the Coastal GasLink pipeline facility on Wet’suwet’en territory near Houston, British Columbia, February 17, 2022. Handout photo courtesy BC RCMP.​]