Skip to content or view screen version

Interview with Will Potter: Green Is The New Red

Infoshop | 08.03.2009 15:11 | SHAC | Animal Liberation | Repression | Social Struggles | World

Will Potter is an award-winning independent journalist who has become a leading authority on "eco-terrorism," the environmental and animal rights movements, and civil liberties post 9/11. James Brennaman, collective member and Vegans Against Moral Schizophrenia co founder caught up with him to discuss the impacts of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act on free speech, activism and the anarchist movement.

Tofu Cream Pie Terrorism
by James B, Vegans Against Moral Schizophrenia

Will Potter:

Will Potter is an award-winning independent journalist who has become a leading authority on "eco-terrorism," the environmental and animal rights movements, and civil liberties post 9/11. James Brennaman, collective member and Vegans Against Moral Schizophrenia co founder caught up with him to discuss the impacts of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act on free speech, activism and the anarchist movement.

J: How did you start writing about the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act?

WP: I started writing about these issues in like '98 or '99. I had a grant to write from the Texas Observer, which is an investigative journalism magazine. I was personally interested in attempts to label animal and environmental activists as terrorists. A friend of mine had done a bunch of fur protests outside of Neiman's and she was arrested quite a few times; eventually the judge sentenced her to 'no protesting' as part of her sentence. I started writing about her and learned about all of this state and federal legislation.

J: You keep your personal views out of your stories. Why?

WP: That is definitely intentional, the website does not focus on my own personal views. I think when you start talking about animal rights issues, environmental issues and tactics all of a sudden you can't get anyone to focus on just the First Amendment issue. For me it isn't really a first amendment issue, it is truly a freedom and liberty issue. For whatever reason it has worked, I was able to get through my entire congressional testimony without a lot of problems or questioning or things like that.

J: Are they going after animal rights activists because they are more effective than other groups or because they are the low hanging fruit?

WP: I think it is a little bit of both. I think it probably started out because they are more effective, combined with the fact that the pharmaceutical industry (which is the most lucrative in the country) and factory farming and other groups having a common cause against animal rights and have money to burn. Also having lawmakers who don't really know a whole lot about the substance of what they are doing so they don't feel too bad attacking animal rights activists. In addition, for a variety of reasons the radical environmental and animal rights movements are still pretty isolated from the capital 'L' Left, whatever that is, and definitely very isolated from the general public even though they are very sympathetic to animal and environmental issues in general. Just labeling them as terrorists I think is a really easy way to just push them aside. Every social movement throughout history has had a variety of tactics. They have all had reformers and mainstream types and lobbying types, direct action types and violent types, it all has to be there. I have been really critical of these national groups going out of their way to smear underground activists. It doesn't protect them, it doesn't make them look any better.

J: What should we be doing in response to the Green Scare?

WP: People should be building stronger communities so when someone is arrested or there is a grand jury there will be people to support them, which makes it easer to resist state repression. When people are isolated and feel alone, when they don't have allies, it puts them in a pretty dark place and I think it makes it easier to make poor decisions like becoming a government informant or cooperating, things like that.

J: What is the effect of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act on the animal rights movements?

WP: I think it is a little too early to say but, I think has made a lot above ground activists afraid, and it has made a lot of people question what they are doing. A lot of the communiqués from underground groups are referencing the AETA, almost like they are trying to give it a big middle finger. I think it is pretty clear that it is not stopping any direct action. If anything it is making people think, "Well, I could choose between sticking my neck out and risk going to prison for something like running a website, like the SHAC7, or having a grand jury subpoena just because I am very vocal, or I can do an underground action and most of those people never get caught."

J: The government is taking crimes that are already illegal and making them terrorism charges and taking things that are not illegal, like posting public information on a website, and making it terrorism.

WP: Exactly, like with the SHAC US case, they are conflating everything. They are treating the Animal Liberation Front as the exact same thing as people who leaflet as the same thing as running a website, it defies logic. To any normal person there is a difference between breaking a window, writing an article about breaking a window, and publishing someone else's anonymous communiqué about breaking a window. Just because they are all about breaking a window doesn't mean they are all connected or that these people know each other. But that is what the government says, and that is what they said about the SHAC US case.

J: What would you say to anarchists not involved in animal rights work about the impacts of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act on them?

WP: Anarchists have always been on the front lines of government repression throughout history for a variety of reasons: their politics, their effectiveness, their community organizing. They are seen as an outcast. So for anyone who is a part of anarchist or anarchist influenced movements, whether they identify as anarchists or not, they should still be paying attention. Just because the government is going after SHAC activists this second doesn't mean they won't be going to go after anarchists or anti war activists next. And I think a really good example of this happened in Minneapolis with the RNC case. Before the Republican National Convention even started they kicked in organizer's doors, rounded everyone up at gunpoint, and now there are eight people with felony charges for "conspiring to incite a riot for the furtherance of terrorism." I don't think they're going to drop these charges, I think they are really going to push it all the way. It shows how fluid all this stuff is. They are charging these kids as terrorists for organizing. That is all they did, they created maps of the city, they talked about 'swarm' tactics, which is civil disobedience, they ran community services like child care and housing, and that is why they were picked off. Anyone who is doing activism should be paying attention.

J: Why are animal activists the number one domestic terrorist threat?

WP: For a long time I thought it was because of money. Animal activists are targeting corporate profits, especially the direct action types. But really anyone who is vegan or vegetarian or paying attention to these issues is threatening corporate profits because you are making lifestyle changes. But I think it goes deeper than just money. The whole view that humans are the center of everything is being challenged. So while it started as an attack on corporate profits is now elevated to a cultural war. Those who benefit from animal industry don't just want the direct action to stop, they want everything to stop, even the animal welfare movement.

J: How is the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act going to affect aboveground groups like PETA?

Under the AETA, doing anything as part of an interstate campaign, even civil disobedience, that disrupts animal enterprise or "damages" a company – and damage means loss of profits – qualifies as "terrorism." There's no exception based on First Amendment rights. PETA, for instance, has come up a lot in the congressional hearings. The head of KFC called them corporate terrorists. I think that certain groups in terms of legal prosecution are going after SHAC and grassroots activists, but in terms of their long term goals and media campaigns they are going after big groups like PETA.

J: Will things change under Obama?

I don't think a whole lot. I think it's possible that there will be some changes. He submitted a statement in one of these congressional hearings on "eco-terrorism" where he said they were wasting their time, inventing a threat where there was none, and that we should focus our energy on other real environmental issues. At best if the AETA Part Two came up, it wouldn't have as good of a chance under Obama as it did under Bush. But I don't think we are going to start repealing some of the bad stuff.

J: Where do these orders to kick down people's doors at gunpoint come from?

WP: They have a life of their own. Orders have to come from somewhere, but what they have done with the RNC 8 and with animal activists is create a climate of fear so that all these police agencies see them as a terrorist threat. They have gotten bulletins from the FBI and Department of Homeland Security about the threat of animal rights terrorists.

So when you have all these Joint Terrorism Task Forces around the country that want a part of the "War on Terrorism." That is where the money is, that is how you move up in the organization. So the ball has started rolling and these groups are tying to do local investigations. They even tried to get a young activist to infiltrate vegan potlucks in Minneapolis. In Brianna Waters' case, she was accused of being a lookout and the people who ended up testifying against her were her former friends. This is a good example of why relying on snitches is so inaccurate in a legal sense. For example, during Operation Backfire a number of people were arrested, and many turned snitch and to get reduced sentences. As they went further down the line of arrestees people had to provide new information to get reduced sentences, so each subsequent snitch has to come up with more information to offer. When it got down to Brianna Waters, Lacy Philabaum had to snitch in order to get a reduced sentence. Then the FBI tried to portray it as a massive example of police achievement when really it was just relying on threats so people felt like they had to offer up anything they can, even when it was false information, and then they used that in court. It's a very corrupt process.

J: When I hear about this stuff it just makes me not want to get out of bed in the morning, any advice?

WP: I feel like all the time, just by writing about this every day. But when you don't know what to do, you have to do something. In a way the more you learn about all this stuff the more the cloud of fear cedes. And it stinks at first, to see it so brutally clear how corrupt our government and how little respect they have for people's constitutional rights. But at the same time it can be kind of empowering when you can look past the media spin and the government PR and you can see the picture clearly. It takes some of the mystery out of it. That's my postivist rationalization on this sort of education, that the more you learn about this the less people retreat into despair and start using their anger for positive change. With these sorts of government tactics, I think that anyone paying attention just has to be angry. You don't have to be an anarchist or a vegan to understand that the Green Scare tactics just aren't right.

J: So what's the best way to not get arrested?

WP: Well, my very legal sounding answer is to know your rights. If you're doing political actions, whether your leafleting or liberating animals, be aware of the consequences. If police approach you, don't talk to them. If police threaten you, don't buckle and start telling them everything you know. I think part of the problem with the Green Scare was that people were getting in over there heads without really understanding and preparing for what kind of repression could come back to them.

Throughout history things like this have always gone on, and I think people have a tendency to feel like this sort of repression is inevitable. In some ways it probably is. Yet at the same time every era of repression, from the Red Scare to COINTELPRO, people came out of it a lot stronger in the end. They become a lot more aware of the true scope of what the state can do. I think there are a lot of positive things that can come out of this. It would be a big mistake if anarchists or anyone else looked at the Green Scare and thought they couldn't do anything about it. The government will doing more stuff like this in the future and we can use to aid in our organizing, to reach out to other movements, to build community and to educate people about their rights. We can use these experiences to move forward.

- Homepage: