The Rumpus Interview With Will Potter

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In 2007, I was put on Homeland Security’s Watch List. True, my brother had just been arrested. He had been a member of the underground Animal Liberation Front, freeing wild mustangs, mink, and lab animals for nigh on twenty years. But the Watch List? Me? Isn’t that for terrorists? It didn’t fully make sense until I picked up Will Potter’s book.


I was eager to speak to Potter, whose Green is the New Red: An Insider’s Account of a Social Movement Under Siege shows how the US government is colluding with corporate America to suppress animal and environmental activism of all stripes.

We spoke over email.

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The Rumpus: When did the government start telling us that environmentalists and animal rights activists were dangerous, even if their protests were perfectly legal?

Will Potter: Beginning in the early 1980s, corporations and industry groups set out to demonize these activists and shift public opinion against them. To do that, they used the power of language. They created the term “eco-terrorism” and used it relentlessly. What I found in my research is that these corporate priorities slowly merged with government priorities. Through tactics such as Congressional hearings, white papers and PR campaigns, this “eco-terrorism” rhetoric worked its way into the top levels of government.

Rumpus: You begin your book, Green is the New Red, by detailing your arrest and detention after leafleting against an animal experimentation lab. But isn’t leafleting legal?

Potter: Absolutely. Leafleting is completely legal, and that’s why the case was thrown out. Often, frivolous arrests like this are more about 1) deterring activists and 2) gathering information. When I was visited by two FBI agents following my arrest, they had little interest in the court case and were much more concerned about those two points.

Rumpus: You described your fear in the face of what was obviously an egregious abuse of power by law enforcement. Now you’ve written a book to expose more government abuses of power. Am I overstepping to ask what the heck changed? Isn’t writing this book the biggest, most aggressive leaflet ever?

Potter: Ha, I think “biggest, most aggressive leaflet ever” would have been a great subtitle. But yes, I definitely had to confront my own fears. I’m glad I had those experiences, though, because it made clear to me how debilitating fear can be. As the Good Doctor Hunter S. Thompson wrote: “Never turn your back on fear. It should always be in front of you, like a thing that might have to be killed.”

Rumpus: You write a lot about the Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) group, who wanted to close down an animal experimenter called Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS). This facility is well known for its egregious treatment of the animals it held. During SHAC’s campaign Huntington’s stock plummeted from 30 dollars to .27 cents in a mere three years. Honestly I didn’t know that young, avid animal rights activists had that kind of savvy.

Potter: SHAC brought Huntingdon to its knees, primarily through a Wall Street level knowledge of how corporations operate. The SHAC USA website schooled activists in business: primers on investors, market makers, and pink sheets. They also listed home and work addresses for anyone doing business with HLS, from bankers to toilet paper suppliers.

Rumpus: The SHAC activists were then arrested, tried and imprisoned for up to seven years. And yet to me all their actions seemed legal. Why didn’t the first amendment protect SHAC?

Potter: All actions related to the campaign—both legal and illegal—got posted on the SHAC website: news of legal protests, leafleting, speaking events and video screenings—and also anonymous communiqués about underground actions. In addition, activists took to the streets, the phones, and executives’ homes with bullhorns, phone blockades and plenty of smart-ass, aggressive rhetoric. The government never accused the SHAC activists of actually committing the crimes posted on the website. Prosecutors said that, through their words and their shared beliefs, they were part of a “conspiracy” and could be held responsible for the actions of others.

Rumpus: But I’ve seen anti-gay groups wave signs in public that say Kill Fags. No one is arresting them when a gay bashing occurs. How does that compare with what SHAC did?

Potter: They are very different cases, but the First Amendment questions at hand are similar. For instance, after Matthew Shepard was tortured and murdered for being gay, Westboro Baptist Church protested his funeral with signs like “No Tears for Queers,” praising his attackers. Animal rights activists have done nothing like that, but some have sunk an executive’s boat—and then SHAC activists protested outside his house wearing pirate hats. Examples like this were used during the SHAC trial to argue that these activists, through their website and their words, incited people to go out, at some point in the future, and commit crimes. What’s the difference? Politics. That’s what should concern everyone about this case. It doesn’t matter if you agree with SHAC or what they said, the law shouldn’t be used at the request of corporations to silence people because of their political beliefs.

Rumpus: Now let’s switch gears, and talk about the branches of the environmental and animal rights movements that do what’s called underground direct action As you know, my brother was a member of one of these groups, called the Animal Liberation Front (ALF).  After twenty years of actions, he was arrested and imprisoned for destroying a horse slaughterhouse.

Potter: Jonathan Paul was certainly an inspiration to the broader movement, not just because of his actions but because of how he responded to the government’s case against him.

Rumpus: They initially charged him with domestic terrorism! Of course, that didn’t stick. But the US government calls the ALF and the ELF (Earth Liberation Front) the “number one domestic terrorism threat.” What about antiabortionists, militias, white supremacists, constitutionalists, and tax protesters?

Potter: That’s an excellent question. The actions of the ALF and ELF have included things like releasing animals from fur farms, destroying genetically-engineered crops, and burning SUVs. These are all serious crimes, but it’s important to note that in the history of these radical movements, not one human being has been injured. Not one. This is no accident: their codes of conduct emphasize that they exist to harm property, not people. In recent years we’ve seen an increase in violent rhetoric, particularly from a small group of animal rights activists, but it has all been words, not actions. By comparison, anti-abortion extremists have murdered doctors, militia groups have created weapons of mass destruction, an anti-tax protestor flew a plane into an IRS building, religious fundamentalists have sent anthrax through the mail, and the list goes on and on. So why are environmentalists and animal activists the top threat? I think that’s a question everyone should be asking of their elected officials. The only possible conclusion I can see is that people in power are more concerned about protecting corporate profits than protecting human life and civil rights.

Rumpus: Here’s another stat that you had in your book. In 2004, just as government rhetoric against the ALF and ELF was ramping up, there were 60 acts of “eco-terrorism.” Yet the year before, there were almost 7,500 hate crimes. Why aren’t hate crimes the number one social menace on the fed agenda?

Potter: I think part of the explanation is the social status of the victim. Victims of hate crimes do not have even a fraction of the political power of corporations. The answer to your question is broader than that, though.  I would argue that hate crimes are an extreme manifestation of values – homophobia, racism, Christian fundamentalism – that are entrenched in our culture. So hate crimes aren’t considered a “threat”: they are business as usual.

Rumpus: You mention in your book that the ALF rescued Britches, a monkey who was taken from his mother hours after he was born, and had his eyes sewn shut in order to find out how, well, a monkey would fare who was taken away from his mother and blinded. The ALF also rescued sleep-deprived cats forced to walk on boards over water to test balance and orientation. By most people’s standards, these are egregious, useless experiments. Do you think if the ALF had restricted their activity to just saving these animals instead of going one step further and destroying the labs, that the feds would have failed in their attempts to label them terrorists? Or are the fires necessary in order to really call attention to animal experimentation?

Potter: The backlash against the animal rights and environmental movements was ramping up long before the occurrence of high-profile arsons. And now, these attacks have expanded to even non-violent civil disobedience. I think politicians and corporations would be waging these campaigns regardless of the tactics used. That being said, the arson at UC Davis was the first ALF crime listed by the FBI as “domestic terrorism,” and marked the beginning of the ALF’s classification as a terrorist organization. Similarly, the ELF arson at Vail ski resort marked an increased attention on the group by the FBI. The double-edged sword of radical tactics is that they may be used to justify a government crackdown, but they also have what sociologists call a “flanking effect” in that they make other activist groups appear more moderate and reasonable.

Rumpus: You say that Republicans sent letters to aboveground environmental groups like the Sierra Club and the NRDC. Those letters stated that ALF and ELF underground actions were no less deplorable than the 9/11 attacks. Holy Shit. Really? How did these aboveground groups respond? They laughed in their faces, right?

Potter: Most aboveground groups responded by publicly condemning underground groups, distancing themselves in hopes of deflecting these Republican attacks. However, loyalty oaths were no guarantee of protection during the Red Scare, and have not protected mainstream environmental and animal protection groups from attack.

Rumpus: I was shocked to learn from your book that no governmental agency agrees on one definition of terrorism. Are you saying that we have a list of “domestic terrorists” but we don’t have a clear idea of what that means?

Potter: That’s correct. “Terrorist” is a malleable label that can be molded to fit the enemy of the hour. Attempts have been made to reach consensus within the federal government and between governments, but these efforts all miss the more important point that “terrorism” is always, by definition, applied to “the other.”

Rumpus: For many readers it may come as a surprise that we have prison units in this country devoted to terrorists. Tell us about CMUs.

Potter: There are two Communications Management Units, or CMUs. They radically restrict prisoner communications with the outside world to levels that rival, or exceed, the most restrictive facilities in the country, including the “Supermax,” ADX-Florence. They overwhelmingly include Muslim prisoners, along with at least two animal rights and environmental activists. The government will say little about who is housed in the secretive facilities, or why they were transferred there. However, through interviews with attorneys, family members, and a current prisoner, it is clear that these units have been created not for violent and dangerous “terrorists,” but for political cases that the government would like to keep out of the public spotlight and out of the press. They are currently the subject of two lawsuits, by the Center for Constitutional Rights and the ACLU, which allege violation of due process rights and inhumane treatment.

Rumpus: You point out that the government is slowly making illegal many of our traditional, nonviolent protests. This strikes me as ironic. Doesn’t this mean that the only way to protest corporate misdeeds against the environment and animals is to go underground?

Potter: Attempts to criminalize undercover investigators, target aboveground activists, and disproportionately punish civil disobedience certainly beg that question. Do corporations really want to put activists in the position of answering?

Rumpus: There was a huge scandal about domestic wiretapping at the height of government pressure on both legal and illegal environmental and animal groups.  What do you say to people who defend things like illegal wiretapping by saying that if you haven’t done anything wrong, then you have nothing to worry about?

Potter: Why do you close your curtains at night? Is it because you are molesting your children? Beating your dog? If you have nothing to hide, shouldn’t your neighbors be able to look in and see everything you do? That’s really the same line of reasoning. We all have a fundamental right to privacy. And that right is especially important when it comes to the First Amendment. Illegal wiretapping has a chilling effect on free speech by making people think twice about what they say, and to whom they say it.

Rumpus: I didn’t think I would laugh at all when I read your book. But you had some funny parts, especially when talking about the lengths the feds, corporate analysts, and corporations go to show how dangerous activists are.

Potter: A nun, a bunny and a terrorist walk into a bar… Wait, I actually don’t have any good terrorism jokes. FBI agents can be pretty funny, though. One of my favorite examples is when FBI agents in Minneapolis tried to get a local activist to help infiltrate vegan potlucks (Best. Job. Ever.). And there was also the time that industry groups warned parents against taking their children to see the movie Hoot because it promoted “soft-core eco-terrorism.”

Rumpus: I imagine that after this book, and all the publicity it has received, the feds are back on your tail.

Potter: It’s unsettling to see my name in things like Counter Terrorism Unit documents, but the stakes are too high for any of us to be deterred by that. There were certainly law enforcement agents at multiple stops on the book tour. At Georgetown Law School, one FBI agent even flashed his badge. However, he didn’t need to; the students knew he was a fed because he didn’t take any free pizza.

Rumpus: Is this interview being monitored right now?

Potter: Maybe. The more important question: Is that going to stop us


Caroline Paul is the author of the memoir Fighting Fire and the historical novel East Wind, Rain, a Bay Area bestseller. Her next book is Lost Cat, a story of love, desperation and GPS technology, due out by Bloomsbury in early 2013. More from this author →