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Green is the new red: Will Potter on the problem of treating environmentalists like terrorists

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When Chicago Tribune reporter Will Potter went to pass out animal rights leaflets, he had no idea the FBI would single him out and pressure him to become an anti-activism informant, threatening his future if he refused. Here, we talk to the TED Fellow and author of Green is the New Red about this experience, which sent him into a whole new area of research. The crux of what he found: environmental and animal-rights activists are now considered the United States’ number-one domestic terrorism threat, and they are being prosecuted as criminals.

Do you think of yourself as an activist?

I don’t consider myself an activist, but there’s certainly an advocacy component when I’m talking about civil rights issues. My background’s in newspaper and magazine reporting. For a long time I tried to pursue the traditional newsroom path, and I was on it for quite a while. Then, when I was working at the Chicago Tribune, I had some experiences with the FBI that put me in a different direction in terms of the issues I was focused on. Then some good friends of mine were wrapped up in different terrorism prosecutions. These experiences immersed me in the issues unexpectedly, and that definitely changed the path that I was on.

What happened with the FBI?

At the Tribune, I was covering breaking news, shootings, murders and local government, and it was all horribly depressing. It was not the type of thing I went into journalism to do. I had a background in college in environmental activism, and protesting the World Trade Organization and the economic sanctions on Iraq, and I wanted to be involved in something positive like that again. So I went out leafletting with a group of people. We just passed out pieces of paper in a residential neighborhood about animal testing. I thought that was the most I could do as a working journalist — something so benign. And of course, since I have the worst luck ever, we were all arrested and charged. It was the only time I’ve been arrested. Those charges were later thrown out, of course. It was a frivolous arrest. And it’s still lawful to pass out handbills.

A couple weeks later, I was visited by two FBI agents at my home, who told me that unless I helped them by becoming an informant and investigating protest groups, they would put me on a domestic terrorist list. They also made some threats about making sure I wouldn’t receive a Fulbright I had applied for, and making sure my girlfriend at the time wouldn’t receive her PhD funding. I really want to think that I wouldn’t be affected by something like that, especially given my activist background, but it just scared the daylights out of me. It really did. That fear eventually turned into an obsession with finding out how this happened, how nonviolent protestors are being labeled as terrorists.

Did they not realize that you were a journalist?

They did, and they obviously didn’t think of the potential of me writing or talking about it. They specifically said, “You are the one of this group that has everything going for you.” They knew everywhere I worked, they knew my editors at the Tribune, they knew different journalism awards I received — and their message was, “Help us or we’re going to put you on a different path.” And they kept saying, “Don’t throw all this away.”

And so at one point, I just said, “What are you going to make go away? This is a class C misdemeanor for leafletting, there’s no way it’s going to hold up in court, and you’re talking about ruining my life.” I of course never became an informant, and never thought about doing anything like that, but — it changed the focus of my work, without a doubt.

Did they bother you after that?

Well, you know, it’s one of those things. It made me realize the power of fear. Because in a situation like that, you don’t know what actually is happening or will happen. There’s no way to find out. Certainly just a few months after 9/11 when this happened, but even today, with the extent of the government’s counterterrorism powers and how they’re being used. So when they talk about making sure I don’t receive a Fulbright, I didn’t receive it, but is that just because I’m not smart enough? Was it because my application wasn’t good enough? I don’t know. It’s impossible to know these things.

Years later, after my book came out, we did a Freedom of Information Act request. I found out that the counterterrorism unit has been monitoring my speeches and book and website. But in terms of day-to-day problems, I really haven’t had any.

How did environmental activism come to be treated as a terrorist crime?

I think the most important thing I found out in my research is that all of this was actually created by the industries that are being protested. In the mid-1980s, these corporations got together and created a new word called “eco-terrorist” — because at the time, these protest movements were growing very quickly and effectively, and they had widespread public support. There clearly was a concern that unless public opinion shifted, there’d be a really big problem on their hands.

So they made up this new word, and then started using public relations campaigns, lobbying, and held congressional hearings. Eventually, that language changed the popular discourse of how we talk about protest. And it was incredibly effective, to the point that now not only does the FBI label animal rights and environmentalists as the number-one domestic terrorism threat — even though they’ve never harmed a single human being — but we have new legislation that singles these protesters out for felonies and as terrorists for what are, in some cases, nonviolent protests.

What is the benefit for the government to bend to the will of the industry? It seems like a huge waste of resources.

Absolutely. That concern about the waste of resources has actually been raised by the Justice Department’s Inspector General in an audit back in 2003 that I found in my research, and by people within government as well, by different congressional reports that have talked about my work. And still, the FBI and Homeland Security maintain this position. It’s a really difficult question to answer. I think there are a few reasons why. Some of them are frankly a direct influence of these industries on elected officials. We found that through open records requests, through lobbying efforts on new terrorism legislation. And partly, I think this has all taken on a life of its own. FBI agents know that the path to career advancement today is by securing terrorism prosecutions. I’ve had current and former FBI agents say this repeatedly. I think these activists are seen as an approachable way of going about that.

And frankly, I think one big reason is that this has worked its way up to the top levels of government — to the point where it’s just not an issue anymore. By that I mean it’s all just become so normal over the years. After September 11th there were these ambitious and sweeping uses of this language that were introduced. Rollbacks of civil liberties. And it was a public outrage. And now, over ten years later, nobody is really talking about the Patriot Act. Nobody is talking about Guantanamo. We’re talking about Edward Snowden and spying, but even then it’s not about gaining back the liberties that have been lost. I think a big part of this is the cultural change that’s happened.

So it sounds like it found its own momentum and no one’s thinking about it anymore.

Absolutely. And as journalist, that’s my biggest critique of how other journalists have contributed to this. When this language began being used, there was not much critical engagement with it. There should have been. Not just a reluctance to use this type of terrorism language against anyone, but also just a complete unwillingness to do so. It automatically skews public opinion unfairly against the people you’re writing about. It’s such an incredibly powerful word, and now it’s just tossed around without much thought. This really indicates to me how much has changed in a short amount of time. We’ve gone from a completely made-up belief — a completely made-up word and campaign — to now this is just business as usual.

When activists Stefan Warner and Moriah Stephenson unfurled this banner at the headquarters of Devon Energy to protest fracking and the Keystone Pipeline, the glitter that fell out got them arrested. They are now facing ten-year prison terms. Photo: Great Plains Tar Sands Resistance

When activists Stefan Warner and Moriah Stephenson unfurled this banner at the headquarters of Devon Energy to protest fracking and the Keystone Pipeline, the glitter that fell out got them arrested. They are now facing 10-year prison terms. Photo: Great Plains Tar Sands Resistance

Could you give us a couple of examples of the people whose lives have been arrested and treated like terrorists?

The rhetoric of these industries has been that we need new terrorism laws to go after extremists who have done things like break windows, and steal animals, set SUVs on fire. These are all obviously crimes, there’s no doubt about that. But what I’ve seen is a shift away from that type of clandestine activity to more mainstream groups.

Just a few weeks ago, some activists in Oklahoma went into a corporate headquarters and dropped a banner in protest of the company’s involvement in natural gas fracking and the Keystone Pipeline. As they dropped this banner, some glitter fell to the ground. The police arrested the activists, and they’re being prosecuted right now for a terrorism hoax. The prosecutors say that they had no way of knowing whether the glitter that fell to the ground was actually glitter, versus a chemical substance or anthrax. Things like this sound completely nuts — but these kids are facing 10 years in prison right now.

Another example is Tim DeChristopher, a university student in Utah who disrupted an illegal oil and gas auction, where public lands were being sold off to corporations. He went in, and he knew he didn’t have any money, but he wanted to expose this, so he kept raising his bidder’s paddle and placed false bids. He cost these industries hundreds of thousands of dollars, and as a result, he was sentenced to two years in prison for that act of civil disobedience. And lawmakers tried to introduce new legislation to label that type of protest as terrorism.

So there’s been this steady creep from the margins to the mainstream. I think the industries being protested are very aware of what the threat is. Tactics like what Tim DeChristopher did are incredibly effective. They inspire people. Not only that, but they cost these businesses lots of money, and they expose illegal actions by governments and corporations. And I think industries are terrified of this. That’s a big part of the reason why these campaigns continue.

You often write about ag-gag laws. What are they?

Ag-gag laws refer to new state-level legislation that’s been introduced in Iowa, Utah and Missouri, some of it still pending, that specifically criminalizes people who take photographs or video of animal welfare abuses, for instance on slaughterhouses and factory farms. These laws are a direct response to a series of investigations by groups like the Humane Society that have led to criminal charges, meat recalls, and also just completely changed the national dialogue about animal welfare, environmental issues and food safety. Rather than try to address these abuses, the industry is just trying to outlaw all of it.

As a journalist, this is especially troubling to me, because if they had existed, they would have made someone like Upton Sinclair a terrorist. I mean, by simply exposing what’s going on in these industries, by investigating and blowing the whistle, people can be prosecuted.

You testified before Congress in 2006 about the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. What is it, and what was your experience?

That’s right. I testified about my reporting before a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act — a federal law passed in 2006 (which expanded a previous law called the  Animal Enterprise Protection Act). It says that any activists who cause a loss of profits — that’s the language of the bill — to animal enterprises, or that interfere with the operations of these enterprises, can face prosecution. The language, though, is so incredibly broad that when I testified, I was talking about, for instance, nonviolent civil disobedience outside a fur store. Or blocking the entrance to a slaughterhouse. And the sponsors of the bill on the committee acknowledged that it could be used that way. So in other words, a counterterrorism law is being designed to be used against nonviolent protestors. I raised the same concerns I’m raising today — namely, that this sweeping use of terrorism laws could be used against nonviolent protestors, against undercover investigators and whistleblowers.

Another thing people should really know about that law is that it passed the House with only about six lawmakers in the room. On that day, almost all of them were down breaking ground on the new memorial honoring Dr Martin Luther King. So you only had a handful of the people in the room, and they snuck this bill through using an obscure procedure that’s meant for non-controversial bills. So that same procedure was used to honor the St. Louis Cardinals for winning the World Series — that type of thing. And then it was used to push through a terrorism bill that could brand what Dr. King did as terrorism.

And there’s no public outcry?

There is an increasing public outcry from within these social movements, and that’s why the politicians and industries pushed this through in that manner at the last minute — because they saw the opposition growing. But frankly, no one was paying attention to this. I was having a very difficult time even getting the animal protection groups to speak out against it, because they didn’t think it had any chance of actually becoming law. And the general public — it just wasn’t on anybody’s radar.

How did you feel about the experience, and after the law went through?

Initially, I viewed the opportunity as an honor. I mean, I thought it was an incredible chance to talk about my work — most journalists never get that opportunity — and also to help contribute to the political process and change the discussion. But I quickly realized that that’s not what the congressional hearings are about. I mean, they’re all very carefully structured to — they hear from the FBI, and the Department of Justice, GlaxoSmithKline and all these industries, and then they turn to someone like me. I was just really the token gesture of opposition, because this legislation was supported by both Democrats and Republicans. So there was really never any intention of engaging with what I’m saying in a meaningful way. It was just going through these motions in order to pass the bill.

And to me it was — no matter how jaded I’ve become living in Washington, DC — still shocking, to see it operate in that way. And just really disheartening to see the willingness of politicians to push through laws like this.

Tell us about your book, Green is the New Red.

Green is the New Red is an investigation into how these groups became the number-one domestic terrorism threat. But it’s also a look into the stories of the people that have been most affected: the protesters who are being targeted, some of the most important First Amendment cases that have been fought on these issues. And it’s also kind of an exposé on how this language of terrorism has led to the creation of secret prison units in the United States that are being used for domestic terrorists. That’s a long way of saying that I’ve tried to approach the book as a journalist, but also incorporating my own personal experiences with the people that have been affected, to paint a more personal picture of what’s at stake here.

The response has been amazing. When the book came out, I got some really great mainstream praise from Publishers Weekly, and Kirkus awarded it a Kirkus Star. I think what’s most important to me is that in the time since it’s come out, there’s been an increased attention on these issues, and all these different topics are coming together.

These ag-gag laws are starting to show up internationally now. Industries in other countries are saying that they want the same protections that corporations in the United States have. I’ve been really glad to see the work that I’ve done on these issues be useful to people elsewhere.

How do you see this all evolving in the future? It doesn’t sound like it’s going in a positive direction at this point.

Well, yes and no. I mean, certainly with the ag-gag laws — when I first started writing about these issues, I never would have thought something like that would be possible. It was just too far-fetched, even for the topics that I write about.

But the outgrowth of that is also that people are outraged. I mean, the backlash against these ag-gag bills has been so inspiring to me. I gave a lecture at Georgetown Law School that had the ASPCA, the worker’s rights groups, unions, environmentalists, me speaking as a journalist — I mean, all these people were in the same room, and frankly, that doesn’t happen very often. These are people that are often at each other’s throats on a lot of issues. But it’s united them in opposition to this threat.

And it’s also, I think, exposed the power of individuals — people who have very little money, very few resources, but completely challenging and threatening some of the most powerful industries on the planet. It’s a point of inspiration, the idea that people with a pinhole camera or an iPhone can record what happens on factory farms and completely terrify this industry. So things are, I think, going to get worse, but there’s also just so much potential.

You said earlier that leafletting is a benign activity? Benign in the sense that it would not have been seen as a conflict of interest with journalism? Or benign as in not breaking anything?

Both. I definitely was not going to be breaking anything! I’ve never done that. But I guess I thought, working as a journalist, I didn’t want to be out there protesting. I didn’t want to be doing civil disobedience. And I didn’t want to have a leadership role in any kind of social campaign. I just saw it as an easy way to plug into advocacy that was already taking place, to try to make a positive difference. Something I could do in an afternoon. That’s really the extent of my ability to be involved in things, and my willingness to be involved in social issues when I was working in a newsroom.

Now that you’re deeply knowledgeable about and involved in the issue, where would you stand on, for example, breaking into a factory farm and filming?

It’s interesting, because as a journalist, I think in a lot of ways it would be completely appropriate. Jonathan Safran Foer, in his book Eating Animals, talked about how that type of covert investigation is really the only meaningful oversight of this industry. Of course, he has the prominence and the respect, so it was not prosecuted or investigated as terrorism, but I think in a lot of ways, journalists might have to use those types of investigative tools in order to expose what’s happening.

Would you have any protection at all under the banner of journalism?

It’s hard to say, because I feel like as First Amendment rights across the board are under attack right now: journalists have not been exempted from that. We’ve seen significant government surveillance against even the most mainstream reporters at The New York Times and Associated Press. So for someone like me, who prides myself on being independent and freelance, I have even fewer protections than those reporters who are tied to a long-standing media outlet. So it definitely concerns me.

Is it ever difficult to draw the line between being on the side of the activists and being distanced enough to cover them? At what point do you just think: “OK, forget the journalism thing. I’m getting in there and throwing rocks?”

It is a really difficult line to walk, and one that I’ve struggled with for a really long time, especially in working on the book. But I think I came to the realization that what’s most important is not to pretend that those relationships and friendships don’t exist, but to be up front about it. I think my primary obligation as a journalist is to my readers, and to people who are seeing my work, that I have transparency. I don’t pretend to be unbiased, but by acknowledging my biases — and acknowledging those relationships — I think it makes my reporting a lot stronger because people understand my approach and the context in which I’m saying things.

But you know, in terms of where to draw that line, and whether you should just put down the pen and pad and start being involved in these movements — frankly, the reason I do this work is because I saw all of this happening, and I didn’t know what else to do. I’ve never been a great organizer for protests and things, and I’ve never been that inclined to lobby elected officials. I mean, I’m a writer, and I speak, and I do media.  I  thought that was the way for me to contribute, to have a role. I think even given the opportunity, I would still stay on this path, because I think that’s what my skills are more useful for. I think that the challenge is everyone finding out what that is for them.