I recently asked Potter about the recent popularization of the concept of “eco terrorism,” difficulties facing activists today, and why those who don’t consider themselves concerned with the environment or animal rights should still be concerned with the green movement becoming the focus of a Red Scare like response from politicians, corporations and law enforcement agencies.
Will Potter is an independent journalist whose work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, The Los Angeles Times, The Vermont Law Review, and The Washington Post. His book, Green is the New Red (City Lights Books) tells the story of how animal rights and environmental activists became the FBI’s “number one domestic terrorism threat.” Potter also teaches a class on investigative journalism at the University of Southern Maine.
Would you mind just explaining what Green is the New Red is about, and what you have been up to surrounding its publication?
Green Is the New Red tells the story of how animal rights and environmental activists became the FBI’s “number one domestic terrorism threat.” It’s a personal look at the people who have been most affected by these policies, and an investigation into the corporations that manufactured the idea of “eco-terrorism.”
I have been speaking at law schools, universities and book stores throughout the U.S., and I also had the opportunity to do a European book tour. I was surprised by how much of what I discuss in the book is appearing in many other countries. In some cases the tactics are identical, and U.S. law enforcement have even briefed police in other countries about activists.
In the last few months there has certainly been a spike in interest in these issues, from both mainstream and alternative press, and to me that has been inspiring. The title of my book is of course a reference to the Red Scare of McCarthyism; the most effective response to that dark era of U.S. history was shining a light directly on the corruption.
In particular, I am curious if you have seen anything about this movie called The East. You can see the Trailer here:
It looks like it is a movie about so-called eco-terrorism, and the trailer is fashioned in the style of the hactivist group Anonymous. There appears to be another film with similar subject matter starring Jesse Eisenberg coming out next year. It is hard to remark on something that one hasn’t seen, I understand, but what do you make of portrayals of these activists in popular media?
One of the top climate change experts, Nicholas Stern, recently came out and said of his work: “I got it wrong on climate change — it’s far, far worse” than he had reported. It’s striking to me that, as we face a growing environmental crisis, pop culture portrayals of these issues veer away from that uncomfortable reality and instead turn to absurdist fiction. I haven’t seen The East, but it the promotional materials look like they could have been pulled from any of the corporate public relations campaigns against “eco-terrorists” over the last 30 years; it’s not at all how these movements operate (no one has been poisoned, no one has been harmed — ever) and it’s detached from our current political reality (as environmentalists are being labeled as “terrorists”). Environmentalists are risking their lives and their freedom in defense of the environment. It’s a shame that most of the attention on that activism is fictionalized, either in the form of corporate PR or Hollywood sensationalism.
Can you talk a bit about the actual plight of direct action activists, particularly those who are now in jail due to resistance of grand jury indictments?
Right now there are three people sitting in jail in Seattle. They’re not accused of breaking windows or setting SUVs on fire. In fact they’re not accused of any crime at all. They were subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury investigating anarchists, and they have taken a principled stand by refusing to talk about their friends and about their political beliefs. For that they may remain imprisoned for the full term of the grand jury, which could be 18 months.
Grand juries have historically been used against social movements for what I would call social mapping (or fishing expeditions). These secretive proceedings also foster distrust in activist circles, as people are pressured to talk about each other’s politics in court, and they make the broader activist community fearful of being vocal about their own political beliefs.
Your book, and much of what I have seen you share on social media, points to this reality in which laws are ultimately being formed to circumvent speech in these very round-about ways. I suppose that’s the way that I would describe to someone who doesn’t consider themselves concerned with environmental issues why they should pay attention to what is going on on these fronts. What do you say to folks who might think, “None of this stuff is about what I am all about.”
A good example of this are “Ag Gag” bills that are being introduced across the country. They criminalize whistleblowers and undercover investigators who expose animal welfare abuses on factory farms. In some cases they are written so broadly as to potentially wrap up journalists as well. So far these bills have become law in two states, and half a dozen more are considering them right now. Industry groups and some members of Congress have gone so far as to equate the filming of animal abuse on factory farms with terrorism.
Regardless of how you feel about animal rights activists or environmentalists, this is something that affects all of us. Using legislation and the courts to single out groups of people because of their political beliefs sets a dangerous precedent. At the same time, this reckless use of the word “terrorism,” combined with new legislation, has had a chilling effect on political activists; it has made people afraid that they, too, could risk being labeled a terrorist for speaking up. This issue is much bigger than animal rights and environmental activism; what’s at stake is the First Amendment, and the ability of people to speak and act on their beliefs without fear.