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Why Does the Govt. Treat Peaceful Enviro Activists More Harshly Than Extremists Who Aim to Kill?

Author Will Potter explores how environmental and animal rights activists concerned with civil disobedience and property destruction are labeled domestic terrorists. May 13, 2011

When you think of domestic terrorists, you don't tend to think of university undergraduates who engage in civil disobedience. But alongside men who are responsible for hundreds and even thousands of deaths, Tim DeChristopher has been labeled a terrorist and was recently convicted in federal court. His crime? At a sale where public land was auctioned off to private companies, he placed false bids alongside corporate giants to inflate the prices. Though Interior Secretary Ken Salazar later suspended the sale of most of the land, aggressive legal action was taken against DeChristopher's rather smart, strategic and truly non-violent resistance. He's currently awaiting sentencing and could receive up to 10 years in prison.

In his new book, Green Is The New Red: An Insider's Account of a Social Movement Under Siege, which is based on years of research and his popular blog of the same name, journalist and activist Will Potter delves into stories like DeChristopher's and the widespread, disproportionate crackdown on so-called eco-terrorism since 9/11. With personal insight -- Potter was once questioned by the FBI for handing out anti-cruelty leaflets in a Chicago suburb -- he explores how animal rights and environmental activists like DeChristopher concerned with civil disobedience and property destruction as a consciousness-raising tactic are labeled domestic terrorists as part of a modern-day Red Scare, the Green Scare. Other domestic and foreign terrorists, who take dozens of lives as part of extremist groups, are given far less media scrutiny and treated as mentally unstable outliers by authorities.

"An unspoken tenet of any terrorism definition is that it does not apply to the systemic violence of people in positions of power against the powerless," Potter writes. "It only applies when the flow of violence is redirected upstream, against government." An engaging, enlightening probe into the federal government's chilling effect on free speech and activism, Green Is The New Red is part personal narrative, part journalistic inquiry, part handbook for at-risk activists.

Brittany Shoot: Part of what you discuss in the book -- whether or not to use violence to raise awareness and force social change -- is perhaps the longest-running debate among leftist activists. How do you think violent action, even without human or animal casualties, influences public opinion of social justice advocacy?

Will Potter: I would extend that debate to the term "violent action." I can remember back to the mid- to late-'90s when Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and Animal Liberation Front (ALF) crimes seemed to be a bit more prominent, and there was a lot of debate about what the word "violence" means, and I think that's an important one to have, too. That automatically shapes the severity and tenor of the discussion when you're talking about destroying an SUV. In the book, I talk a bit about this and why I don't believe destroying property fits my and most people's conception of what the word "violence" means.

BS: Many of the activists you profiled are discussing or campaigning for the end of different types of cruelty and destruction. For example, people who seek to end horrific abuses of animals might break windows in a laboratory, or environmentalists might burn an SUV, yet the public conversation then focuses on property destruction rather than the ways humans systematically use, torture, and kill animals or the devastating effects of climate change.

WP: Right! I never mean to downplay the severity of property crimes, but I think we, as a country, have totally lost perspective. Burning an SUV can be dangerous, and it's a serious crime. It cost someone money, and it caused some harm. But you know, Osama bin Laden was just murdered. I've seen some really interesting discussions about this on Facebook within animal rights and environmental circles. A friend of mine said to someone who was going on about the greatness of Osama's death, "You've condemned groups like the ALF in the past for doing things like releasing animals or for breaking windows. But it's OK to cheer on this bloodshed?" The assumption with all of that is that property destruction or violence or illegality or radical action -- whatever you want to call it -- is always more appropriate if it's in line with systems of power. I think that's really the issue right now.

BS: In light of the ways the post-9/11 climate of fear fuelled debates about domestic terrorism, how do you think Osama bin Laden's death could alter the public discussion about eco-terrorism?

WP: What has stood out to me in the past couple of days is how little we as a country have changed -- or to put it another way, how much this rhetoric, these policies, and this way of viewing the world has become institutionalized. President Obama made a statement in which he said that Osama bin Laden may be dead but we will never forget the legacy of what has happened.

I would actually argue that we have forgotten. We really have forgotten what and how much things have changed. We have forgotten the uproar that existed surrounding the Patriot Act that was passed in the middle of the night. We have forgotten how national security policies were completely overhauled in the name of fighting terrorism. We have forgotten when "terrorism" was not a household word heard on the news every single day. We have forgotten all of these things. To me, Osama bin Laden's death really represents a pivotal moment in a long chain of events that is becoming more and more everyday life. I don't want to be pessimistic, but I don't think his death will lead to much change because it has become such a big part of not just the Bush administration but the Obama administration. Now that this threat has been killed, there will be another threat.

BS: In some ways, this doesn't seem like it should be a partisan issue, but as you point out, the legal maneuvers and chilling effects passed under the second Bush administration have continued -- much to many people's disappointment -- since President Obama took office. Why do you think that is?

WP: Going into the Obama administration, there was certainly reason to believe that he would be different. The example I use in the book is from a senate committee hearing on ecoterrorism where he submitted a letter of opposition, saying the hearing was a misplaced priority, a waste of government resources, scaremongering -- it was really fantastic. But since being in office, his policies not just on so-called ecoterrorism but about national security issues in general have been quite awful. He has supported extraordinary rendition, which is sending people to other countries to be tortured. He supported immunity for the telecoms that illegally spied on Americans. The list goes on and on. I don't know if that means that there's no possibility of change with the Obama administration, but like you said, I think a lot of people are quite disappointed. And I think if more people knew the extent of how much Obama has not only supported but gone even further than the Bush administration, I think there'd be a lot more outrage.

BS: How do laws like the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act and the vague legal definition of terrorism in general contribute to the government's ability to label eco-activists as criminals or worse?

WP: I'd argue there are two strategies going on at the same time that make this happen. One is pushing the limits of existing laws. So, for instance, with the [multi-agency ecoterrorist criminal investigation] Operation Backfire cases, the government pushed for terrorism enhancement penalties, which had never been used against environmentalists or animal rights activists before. They did this to officially classify them as terrorists and chalk this up as a victory in the war on terrorism. It has also led to disproportionately harsh treatment of ALF prisoners in the case.

The other simultaneous tactic is to push for new laws that go even further. The most important example is the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, which passed in 2006. It took an already an already vague and broad law called the Animal Enterprise Protection Act and expanded it so much that it could be used to target non-violent civil disobedience as terrorism.

So you have these two things going on -- ambitious prosecutors, and then ambitious corporations and politicians -- not that they're necessarily working in lockstep all the time but their combined efforts are what are really dangerous because all of it is in line with people's personal self interests. The prosecutors want a victory to show their relevance and to show a victory in the war on terrorism. The politicians want a victory to show that they're relevant to corporations and deserve their support. As a result, we're getting some pretty outrageous court cases.

BS: In the book, you write about the discrepancies in public rhetoric between different types of activists. Why do you think some violent extremists, like people who murder abortion providers and bomb clinics, are treated as less of a threat by the FBI than less violent environmentalists who don't harm living beings but may engage in property destruction?

WP: What we've had is a complete inversion of reality in a lot of ways because the most violent, politically-motivated crimes -- for instance, by the anti-abortion movement, militia groups, Aryan Nations, KKK -- meant to instill fear in the general public to push an agenda -- in other words, terrorism -- are not being labeled terrorism, either through media campaigns or in the courtroom or in legislation. Meanwhile, groups that have never actually harmed a human being in more than thirty years of so-called radical actions and extremism -- according to their opponents -- are the number one domestic terrorism threat.

As part of my work, I went through Homeland Security documents and FBI documents and one thing that really stood out was that, actually in the FBI annual terrorism reports, it does not list violence by anti-abortion extremists or any of these groups -- Aryan Nations, tax protestors, or people who have murdered human beings, sent anthrax through the mail, or flown planes into buildings. In fact, in the FBI's report after September 11, it said in the first five years after 9/11, every act of domestic terrorism was committed by animal rights and environmental groups. In that same time period, crimes of physical violence [by other radical groups] were occurring that didn't receive that label.

BS: Tell me about some of your personal safety and security concerns as someone who both reports on and is involved in heavily monitored, aggressively prosecuted activism.

WP: I wanted to talk about this a lot in the book, and in fact, in some ways, a main character in the book is fear because it's there in every courtroom, in every interaction; it's kind of behind the scenes in every component of this story. For me, it's not something you think about -- and this was something I heard from everyone I interviewed for the story as well -- you just have to go about doing your work.

Now, you'd kind of be out of your mind if you didn't, at some point over the years, say, "Hey, all of this terrible stuff is going on. The FBI has come to my door. Maybe I should think about whether people are paying attention." And, it's unsettling to find information about my speeches and articles in counterterrorism documents.

A real issue I've had in doing this work is feeling like it contributes to public fear in some ways, by raising awareness of these issues and makes people feel more afraid and makes people wonder if they're on terrorist lists. I always try to emphasize that our fear is being used as a tool. The way we combat that fear is by being open about it and by talking to people -- talking to your friends and to your community, talking about it through your work and fighting it head on.

BS: How can we get beyond the fear?

WP: I think the most important thing through all of this -- the reason I wanted to write about this -- is that when people learn what is going on, sometimes the first response is fear, and it can be overwhelming, intimidating, and depressing. But I also firmly believe that the more we learn about this, it can also be empowering. Tying back to what we talked about before, going through all of these court documents and interviewing people everyday, it is overwhelming but it's also empowering because you realize what these corporations and politicians are doing. It's not magic. It's not a superpower. These are campaigns that have been done throughout history to social movements, and they're largely the same tactics. I think by taking a close look at what's going on, we can see it for what it is and be better able to fight back against it.

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