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Environmental Justice and the Criminalizing of Dissent

Paul J. Comeau (pauljcomeau [at] gmail.com) is a freelance journalist. His work has appeared in Political Media Review, a clearing house for reviews of social justice media; the online culture magazine Verbicide; and the independent music magazine Razorcake, among others.

Will Potter, Green Is the New Red: An Insider’s Account of a Social Movement Under Siege (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2011), 302 pages, $16.95, paperback.

It starts with a knock on the door. FBI agents threaten to put journalist Will Potter’s name on a terrorist watch-list for leafleting. They want him to inform on his friends in the environmental justice community. They threaten to show up at his work, to ruin his career, his education, and make other threats. Potter refuses to collaborate, and never hears from the agents again, but the incident leaves him changed. “I do not know it right now, but this experience will mark the beginning of both a personal and a political journey. After the initial fear subsides, I will become obsessed with finding out why I would be targeted as a terrorist for doing nothing more than leafleting,” Potter writes (16).

In Green Is the New Red: An Insider’s Account of a Social Movement Under Siege Potter chronicles his journey, attempting to unravel why the non-violent animal rights and environmental movement is the federal government’s number one domestic terrorism priority. From the front lines of an activist campaign in New Jersey to the halls of Congress and beyond, Potter documents how this movement is persecuted by law enforcement and legislative action for its political and moral beliefs in defense of animals and the environment.

In order to understand how and why the government has started to view animal rights and environmental activism as terrorism, this term must be defined. Potter says there is no single accepted definition of terrorism used either internationally, nor one used consistently at federal and state levels. However, “common elements consistently appear in state, federal and international uses of the term by people from a variety of backgrounds and political ideologies.” The definition of terrorism that Potter extracts from these usages has three components: (1)It is associated with the unlawful use of violence, or threats of violence, by non-state agents; (2) it is intended to instill widespread fear in a civilian population beyond those targeted; and (3) it is used to force a change in government policy (38).

With this definition in mind, Potter delves into understanding the environmental justice and animal liberation movement, and the government’s reaction to it. In particular, he looks at the cases of two distinct groups of activists and their histories. Potter neither obscures facts nor pulls punches about the campaigns these groups were involved in, and he highlights the distinct and divergent tactics they used to wage their campaigns.

Potter first looks at Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC), which is a campaign to close the animal testing facility Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS). SHAC utilized boycotts, protests, and demonstrations at the headquarters of HLS; at the headquarters of any company that supported HLS economically in any fashion; and also at the homes of both HLS executives and those of related companies. SHAC openly acknowledged and supported clandestine illegal actions, which were documented on their website alongside aboveground organizing. It was largely this website, with its vocal support of both the aboveground and underground actions against HLS, that drew the ire of the government. At the trial of six activists and the organization (collectively known as the SHAC 7), the prosecution’s argument hinged largely on the content of the SHAC website. Potter writes, “Although none of the defendants were accused of any of the crimes posted on the site, the government hoped to convince the jury that by identifying targets, posting personal information and unabashedly supporting illegal actions, they were part of a conspiracy.” The conspiracy (to violate the Animal Enterprise Protection Act) charge was leveled at all six activists, and “for Darius Fullmer and Andy Stepanian, it [was] their only charge. Fullmer sent emails about protests and helped research corporate targets online. Stepanian took part in protests, and one witness testified that he instructed protesters where to stand in order to comply with police” (98). The other defendants, Josh Harper, Jake Conroy, Kevin Kjonaas, and Lauren Gazzola faced charges of “conspiracy to harass using a telecommunications device,” Potter writes, because “the SHAC website promoted electronic civil disobedience.” Conroy, Gazzola, and Kjonaas also faced charges of “conspiracy to stalk, and three counts of interstate stalking” on the grounds that “the posting of personal information on the SHAC website, combined with protests at individual’s homes, phone calls, emails and the crimes of underground activists, instilled a reasonable fear of bodily harm” in the executives of Marsh Inc., Huntingdon’s insurance company (99).

Ultimately, “it was the defendants’ non-encrypted communications—the speeches, home protests, websites and emails on public listservs—that comprised the government’s case” (100), raising interesting First Amendment issues that Potter addresses at various points.

The second group, the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), was more amorphous, and details of its existence depend on the perspective of the narrator. The government’s perspective “is like a spy novel or gritty true-crime drama,” Potter writes (80). Arrested as part of Operation Backfire, an FBI crackdown on environmental activists, the individuals identified by the government as being part of the ELF were thought to be part of a close-knit, methodically organized cell. According to those participants, the ELF was less an organized group, and more a decentralized network of affiliated activists, who, believing that conventional aboveground activism and civil disobedience did not go far enough, sought more extreme measures—including vandalism, arson, and other forms of property destruction—to defend the environment from destruction. Potter writes that, from their perspective, “at the time the escalation of tactics was a calm, rational progression from symbolism to direct action” (81). While their crimes would have, under normal circumstances, only earned them a couple years in jail, the prosecution pushed for terrorism enhancements to be added to all their sentences; this added years, even decades, to any possible sentence. One of the defendants, Daniel McGowan, was charged for his participation in two arson cases, one at the Jefferson Poplar tree farm, and the other at Superior Lumber. The first arson, the prosecutors argued, qualified for the terrorism enhancement merely because the ELF communiqué about the action, which was co-written by McGowan, mentioned legislation (204). The trial judge agreed.

A number of complex legal issues were wrapped up in this case, and Potter unravels them clearly and concisely. From defining the nature of violence, to discussing the possibility of illegal National Security Agency spying on the defendants and the unusual “non-cooperating plea-agreement” reached (79), Potter reveals the legal gamut of the entire case, while allowing room for readers to draw their own conclusions on whether “justice” was served.

Potter also briefly mentions the case of Marie Mason, indicted for the 1999 arson of an office that housed genetic-engineering research at Michigan State University. Mason received an almost twenty-two year sentence (with the terrorist enhancement)—one of the longest for an environmental activist, despite a clear case of entrapment on the part of the government, which cooperated with Mason’s ex-husband Frank Ambrose. Potter shows how the current administration has done little to curb the threats to civil liberties these cases embody, and traces how such a precarious political climate has come about.

Interweaving the narratives of these cases with the history of the increasingly alarmist rhetoric of both corporate interest groups and the government against the environmental justice movement, Potter shows how a feedback loop was created. Fueled by fears of threats to profits and status, as well as corporate scaremongering, the government’s willingness to lie down and placate corporate interests has created an oppressive social environment on par with the political witch hunts of the 1950s Red Scare, from which Potter derives the title of the book.

Part of this alarmist rhetoric is the demand for ever more powerful laws defending the profits and interests of corporations over the rights of people who disagree with them and their practices. Potter traces the history and development of two such laws, the Animal Enterprise Protection Act, and the later and more draconian Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. This means following the money, and he does so thoroughly. Between his analysis of the birth of these bills, and the case studies of the two groups he writes about, the reader is drawn to the natural conclusion that, “In their own words and their own documents, government agencies have made clear that eco-terrorists do not threaten people, they threaten profits” (240).

It is a chilling thought that these laws, which criminalize the protest of the animal industry as “terrorism,” are only a breath away from being reconstituted into laws criminalizing protests of any and all corporations, no matter how grossly irresponsible or harmful their actions may be in their endless drive to increase profit. It is hubris like this that destroys not only acres of forests and kills innocent animals, but also disrupts whole economies and drives thousands out of work and out of their homes, while simultaneously criminalizing any challenges to these practices.