‘Akin to terrorism’: the war on animal activists

[Published on overland.org.au, August 9, 2013]

Last month, NSW Primary Industries Minister Katrina Hodgkinson said that covertly filming factory farms was ‘akin to terrorism’.

‘We simply have to win. I’ve spoken very strongly to other government ministers in relation to this and the NSW Government is now looking at what we can do in this space as well,’ she told a group of farmers gathered at the NSW Farmers’ Association’s annual conference. ‘These people are vandals. These people are akin to terrorists.’

The context of these remarks was a series of Animal Liberation operations to set up covert surveillance on pig farms in order to document animal abuse.  It could be tempting to dismiss the comments as mere rhetorical pandering to an industry facing a fundamental cultural shift in the way people view animals and intensive farming. But the agriculture industry here is increasingly taking its cues from the US, where rhetoric has turned into lobbying for harsh sentencing, targeting the environmental movement and animal rights activists under anti-terrorist laws. Legislation – dubbed ‘ag-gag laws’ –  have been passed in a number of states making illegal the covert taping of animal abuse on factory farms and even the distribution of those recordings. The 2006 Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act is so broad that non-violent civil disobedience can now be prosecuted as terrorism, while the FBI has described environmentalists and animal rights activists as the top domestic terrorist threat in the US, even though those movements have never taken human life.

Will Potter, the author of Green is the New Red, which documents the rising rhetorical and legislative war against anarchists, environmentalists and animal rights activists, recently toured Australia and New Zealand. I spoke to him about the growing injustices perpetrated against activists in the US, and his own experiences of harassment and intimidation by the FBI.

Anna Greer:  How did you come to write your book Green is the New Red?

Will Potter: I was working as a reporter at the Chicago Tribune and covering breaking news and shootings, city council meetings and things like that. It wasn’t the type of work that I wanted to be doing. It was a great professional position to be in but I entered journalism for the same reasons I got involved in political activism when I was younger and that’s to try to make a positive change in the world. So I decided to go out leafleting with a group of activists because I thought it was really the most I could do as a working reporter. We were arrested for passing out these leaflets. Those charges were thrown out of court but a couple of weeks later I was visited by two FBI agents who threatened to put me on a domestic terrorist list unless I helped them by becoming a government informant and investigating animal rights and environmental groups.

Even though I was familiar with these tactics already and I had seen things like this I never thought they would be so bold as labelling people terrorists for passing out leaflets. It really terrified me. I didn’t have any idea what that meant. It was only a couple of months after September 11 and they threatened to not only make sure I lost my job if I didn’t help but my ex-girlfriend would lose her PhD funding, I would lose a Fulbright [Scholarship] I had pending, my parents would be affected because they knew all this information about them and they knew where I came from and who I was friends with, all this kind of stuff. But after that fear went away, or at least subsided, that’s when I really became obsessed with finding out how these groups were labelled the top terrorism threat in the US.

As I became more involved in it a few years later, some friends of mine were indicted as terrorists for their campaign against an animal testing company. Even after that experience I wasn’t completely immersed in this issue. I was still trying to figure out how to make a professional career as a mainstream journalist. I moved to DC to do that but ultimately it got to the point I couldn’t ignore this anymore.

AG: So you ended up calling their bluff?

WP: I don’t know if I was that savvy. There was more this kind of feeling of helplessness about it. I knew I was never going to become an informant – that wasn’t an option. And it didn’t seem like an option was sitting at home and being terrified. There really wasn’t another choice in front of me and I think it just took a while to mentally process the fact that the only thing that makes sense is to combat it by being public and being outspoken and trying to expose this.

AG: How long did that process take?

WP: Quite a while. I mean for that kind of paralysing fear to subside it didn’t take that long but over the next couple of years I was writing about these issues but I was still trying to do it as someone who was separate from all of this. And I think slowly I realised that part of the reason I’m credible on this issue and the reason I understand these movements is because I come out of them as well. So I became much more open about, you know, I’m not just a reporter, I’m sympathetic to these movements, I have a background as an activist and that’s not something we should be afraid of talking about.

AG: Were there any consequences to not helping the FBI?

WP: That’s the hard thing, you just don’t know. I didn’t get this Fulbright, but is that because I’m not smart enough? I didn’t get some other jobs I was applying for after the Tribune but is that just because the journalism economy was suffering? My girlfriend at the time didn’t lose her funding but it was just this feeling of not knowing and that really shaped my work from that point forward because all these tactics are not just about banning first amendment activity, they’re what lawyers would call a chilling effect. It doesn’t outlaw protests but it makes people afraid. It didn’t ban me from continuing my path but it was intended to instil fear and I think really that’s the most powerful element here is that fear.

AG: What’s the context of the FBI’s interest in leftist social movements in the US? There is a history of the FBI targeting student and social movements in the 70s and the 60s but then also quite radical movements emerging such as the Weather Underground, so do you think it’s just habit that they’ve continued to focus on leftist movements over far Right extremists who are evidently more violent?

WP: Really the history of the FBI is built in the framework of this ideological warfare against social movements. The FBI emerged, in a lot of ways, you have to go back to the Palmer raids in the 1920s in which [Attorney General] Mitchell Palmer had this campaign against subversives and communists and dissidents around the country, literally kicking in people’s doors, deporting them, brutally attacking them. One of the key figures emerging in that era was J Edgar Hoover and he really took a lot of cues from Mitchell Palmer. And then as his time came much later it really shaped how he viewed his new job and the creation of the FBI as well. I think that’s central to understanding the history of the FBI. It is firmly rooted in this ideological war against leftists.

As time went by, in the 60s there was the counter-intelligence program, or COINTELPRO, which was a campaign through Hoover, explicitly to disrupt and neutralise leftist movements. It wasn’t just about collecting information on criminal acts, [its stated purpose] was to destroy the movements. And when that came out it led to congressional hearings and the FBI promised to never do this again but we’re doing the same things all over again, like you said through the 60s, through anti-war movements, Students for a Democratic Society, Martin Luther King, onward up through the anti-nuclear movement and now we’re seeing it in the animal rights and environmental activists and anarchist groups.

AG: Is the FBI focusing at all on the extremist right militia groups who have actually killed people? Do they employ the same tactics with them, even if they haven’t waged the rhetorical war as they have with progressive movements?

WP: Sure. That is certainly taking place. One person I talk to quite a bit about this issue is a guy named Mike German who works at the American Civil Liberties Union. He used to work at the FBI and he was infiltrating right-wing groups but now he has emerged as a very vocal opponent of how these tactics are being used against animal rights and environmental activists and leftists. What he argues is that there is really a systemic problem within the Bureau in how they conceptualise these movements and the disproportionate focus on animal rights activists and environmentalists. To explain that is difficult – it is partly patterns of behaviour and how the FBI is structured and how people are brought up through the bureau in their career. I think it goes a little bit deeper than that as well. FBI agents have a hard time understanding these other movements. With right-wing groups, you know, the FBI is a conservative organisation, they can at least understand what they’re thinking perhaps but not what they’re doing. Even if they don’t support the illegal actions of right-wing groups, their ideology isn’t shocking to them, whereas, these animal rights and environmental activists, they have no connection to, they don’t understand at all.

I think another explanation is that really, these right-wing movements are just extreme manifestations of standard cultural values. The people murdering doctors in the name of their cause are certainly extreme, but that belief system isn’t – that mentality of depriving women of their right to choose how they live their lives. Racist groups are certainly extreme in attacking black churches but racism is a systemic problem in the States. So, I would argue, that is part of it, that these are really just status quo values.

AG: Just taken a little bit further.

WP: Exactly.

AG: It also seems as though the government takes an interest in protecting corporate interests, even over the safety of US citizens from the threat of right-wing terrorism.

WP: In my work I have found that there is direct communication between corporations and law enforcement. In the courts [corporations are] putting pressure on judges, putting pressure on the FBI, lobbying for new laws, so there is that type of heavy-handed direct influence but there is also the indirect influence of this structure of power and I think we have to think of things more broadly in that way.

The influence of these industries doesn’t always have to be explicit in how government functions because the two are so intertwined. The influence of corporations on our democracy is so overwhelmingly powerful that it doesn’t have to be GlaxoSmithKline calling up the FBI. It’s important to note that we’ve really emerged from this kind of corporate state. It’s not just corporations putting an influence on democracy, corporations have really emerged in a lot of ways with democratic functions and they are central to it every step of the way. They have an incredible influence on lawmakers, an incredible influence on legislation, on state level and local restrictions and we can’t ignore that.

AG: What is the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act and what is its significance or impact on animal rights activists?

WP: The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act is a law passed in 2006 that expands a previous law called the Animal Enterprise Protection Act. This new law is so broad that it wraps up non-violent civil disobedience as terrorism and other protest activity if it threatens a loss of profits of corporations targeted. That language is so vague and so broad that not only could it wrap up undercover investigators, civil disobedience, and even protests but in addition to that it really has instilled fear in activists paying attention because there is this constant unknown of will I be targeted? Will I be arrested for protest? And I would argue that is fundamentally unconstitutional. At the point where people have to ask themselves, am I going to be arrested as a terrorist for having an effective protest? That’s language and legislation that has gone way too far.

AG: Can you tell me about the ag-gag lawsuit filed recently?

WP: Recently attorneys filed a lawsuit on which I am a plaintiff along with a couple of other journalists and animal protection groups against ag-gag, which are these restrictions on people filming and taking photographs on factory farms and slaughterhouses. The lawsuit was filed in Utah, which was one of the first states to pass this legislation. It was also the first state to prosecute someone for filming a slaughterhouse. I joined the lawsuit because as a journalist these laws are directly putting my sources at risk. People are noticeably distraught and concerned about talking to reporters like me because it could land them in prison. It also puts me at risk. Some of this legislation is so broad that it criminalises just distributing footage of animal abuse. This is what I do every day so in both ways it’s really an attack on freedom of the press.

AG: During your speaking tour of New Zealand and Australia, did you have anyone who told you of personal stories of the state security apparatus putting pressure on them?

WP: As I was touring I met some folks who brought up a lot of situations I wasn’t aware of before I left, because a lot of these stories don’t make national headlines.

In New Zealand I heard a lot of stories about undercover law enforcement infiltrating animal rights groups and also corporate agents infiltrating animal rights groups. This was exposed and confirmed by confronting these people and also by documenting it through the government.

The main reason I’m doing a tour like this is because we’re seeing these tactics pop up around the world. We often forget that because corporations have no national boundaries they can just go anywhere to pursue their profits and as they do that they take these tactics with them and we’re seeing that in the UK and in Germany and Spain, Austria, Finland, Greece and we’re seeing it now in Australia and New Zealand as well.

There is already talk by these industries of how they can emulate ag-gag laws and so the reason I’m doing events and tours like this is so people can be better prepared for how this all works, what the tactics are and how we can better respond to it. Because I think it’s inevitable as social movements become increasingly effective there will be a backlash. There is no getting around that. But we can have control over how we can respond to it and rather than being afraid we can critically examine it and use it to shape an effective response.