Issue #7- February 2010
-Green is the New Red: An Interview with Journalist Will Potter
by Dara Greenwald
In May of 2004, when the state began its case against artist Steve Kurtz of the Critical Art Ensemble on charges of “bio-terrorism”(1)(which was later changed to mail and wire fraud and then dropped), I began paying more attention to the wider swath of the population and activities now being labeled as terrorists in the post 9/11 US.
Kurtz’case illustrated that artistic activity that was critical of power was not immune to state repression. The subject of this piece, what many activists are calling the “Green Scare,” looks at the increasing repression of a variety of activist tactics through the label of “terrorism.” The same month that Kurtz was arrested, John E. Lewis from the Counterterrorism Division of the FBI testified in front of Congress on the threat of “eco-terrorists.” CNN cited Lewis as stating, "The No. 1 domestic terrorism threat is the eco-terrorism and animal-rights movement." Although anti-abortion activists and neo-nazis had continuously harmed and even killed people, there were not powerful industries losing money from their actions as was the case with those who Lewis was calling the No. 1 domestic terrorist threat. Yes, some of those accused in the Green Scare may have broken laws but if their activity had been punished as criminal, instead of terrorist activity, their sentencing would likely have been shorter. The label of terrorist carries over into cases of people running websites, or staging non-violent demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience. Through my research on this subject, I discovered the work of journalist Will Potter who has committed himself to following this story in his roll as a professional journalist and through his blog Green is the New Red. He agreed to be interviewed for the Journal of Aesthetics & Protest.
DG: On your site, you define the Green Scare in this way: “Much like the Red Scare and the communist witch hunts of the 40s and 50s, the Green Scare is using one word—this time, it’s ‘terrorist’—to push a political agenda, instill fear, and chill dissent. And much like the Red Scare, the Green Scare is operating on three levels: legal, legislative, and what we’ll call extra-legal, or scaremongering.” Can you talk about how this scaremongering has affected activists?
WP: The purpose of the balaclava-clad ad campaigns, the State Department briefings, the DHS memos, the outlandish prison sentences, the FBI harassment and the blacklists is not to protect national security or even to catch illegal, underground activists. The point is to instill fear in the mainstream animal rights and environmental movements—and every other social movement paying attention—and make people think twice about using their First Amendment rights. It has had mixed success. There's no doubt that many activists are afraid, and justifiably so, that this terrorism rhetoric could be used against them. But along with that fear, these tactics have also created a lot of rage. People are afraid, but the more we talk about these issues openly, the more we raise awareness and come together, the more we can confront our own fears and turn them into motivation for collective action.
DG: Can you tell me a little how industry has gotten in on the legislative side of this?
WP: Animal industry groups, corporations and the politicians representing them have been pushing federal and state legislation to label activists as “terrorists” since the 1990s. The state legislation has been somewhat successful, and many states have some version of "eco-terrorism" legislation. At the federal level, this legislation stalls out at the committee level, only to be repackaged and reintroduced the next session. In 2006, however, a coalition of corporations successfully pushed the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act through legislation.
The law is so vague and broad it wraps up a wide-range of traditional protest activity as terrorism if it negatively impacts corporate profits. On the House floor, Democrat Bobby Scott acknowledged that this law could go be used to target non-violent civil disobedience if it disrupts the business operations of an animal enterprise. This was legislation crafted at the urging of corporations, endorsed by corporations, and rushed through Congress by corporations.
DG: There are so many cases, but can you tell us about one that might be relevant to people reading this, people who produce art, media, theory, and culture, and may not be involved in direct action?
WP: No one has been safe from this terrorist fear mongering, even authors and artists. Industry groups labeled Hoot, a bestselling book and popular movie, “soft-core eco-terrorism” because the teenage protagonists try to save an endangered owl from developers. Apparently even E.B. White was an “eco-terrorist” according to the Center for Consumer Freedom, the movie remake of Charlotte’s Web promotes animal rights extremism.
You mentioned Steve Kurtz, which is a great example of how artists can directly be targeted for their work. Unfortunately these aren't isolated instances. There was also the infamous Boston incident where terrorism officials targeted the creators of LED displays with cartoon characters from Aqua Teen Hunger Force (they say they resembled improvised incendiary devices, and were intended to instill fear in the citizens of Boston). The Graffiti Research Lab created similar devices…
The purpose of all this is to not only make activists afraid, but to instill fear in those who may comment on related issues through media and art.
DG: Many of the actions being punished seem to operate on a symbolic level (meaning that the action itself is meant to be spectacular, communicate ideas, or inspire others) which is what many political artists aim to do—what do you think about that idea?
WP: It's an interesting analogy, and brings to mind a recent banner-drop by Greenpeace at Mt. Rushmore. The action was clearly intended to operate on that symbolic, spectacular level. The FBI put out a press release announcing the arrests of Greenpeace activists. There are countless other examples along those lines, such as activists "pie-ing" CEOs as media stunts (which has repeatedly been called "terrorism"). I think the bottom line is that so many of these incidents don't resemble what any reasonable person would consider "terrorism"—many are more similar to performance art or publicity stunts.
DG: Do you think the Green Scare has implications for artists and media makers? If so, in what ways?
WP: What's going on right now, labeling animal rights and environmental activists as "terrorists," has implications for everyone. It puts us all at risk. It's widening the net, wrapping up an ever-increasing group of people as extremists and terrorists, and criminalizing dissent. Artists have, throughout history, used their craft as a tool of resistance and been targeted for that. To continue the Red Scare analogy, many artists had their lives ruined during that period because of their beliefs, their perceived beliefs, and the content of their work.
DG: Although the name the Green Scare references the 40’s and 50’s, I’m wondering how this might relate to the repression of activists of the 60’s and 70’s. Do you think the state’s tactics have changed since the times of COINTELPRO?
WP: Yes and no. Many of the government and corporate tactics we're seeing now are a direct extension of COINTELPRO-style tactics. For instance: the use of government informants, FBI infiltrators, wiretapping, surveillance, scaremongering, smear campaigns and outrageous prison sentences. In many ways, these tactics against progressive social movements are nothing new. September 11th, however, marked a drastic expansion of the arsenal of weapons the government has to use against activists. Most importantly, in my opinion, is the sweeping use of the word "terrorist."
DG: Now that Obama has changed the name of the “Global War on Terror” to “Overseas Contingency Operation” can environmental activists still be “the #1 domestic terrorist threat” as stated by the FBI since 2004? Has the state’s approach to these cases changed at all now that there is a new administration?
WP: Unfortunately, nothing has changed under the new administration. The first arrests under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act came under Obama's watch: in California, four activists were arrested for allegedly wearing masks at home protests, chanting, and distributing fliers with the phone numbers and addresses of animal researchers. I don't think we should write off the Obama administration, by any means, but so far it has simply been a continuation and extension of the same failed "terrorism" policies of the Bush administration.
DG: How do you think the rising mainstream awareness of climate change, vegetarianism, and going “green” in general might affect the public understanding of state repression of environmental activists?
WP: A recent Department of Homeland Security (DHS) report warned that "those generally concerned with the welfare of the environment, may become increasingly tempted to abandon traditional methods of environmental conservation…" Corporations and the government are clearly afraid that the increasing awareness of green issues will prompt more people to take direct action, rather than simply switching their light bulbs or buying a Prius. Rising mainstream awareness will not only make people more sympathetic to a variety of tactics used in the defense of the environment, it will also make people more reluctant to swallow the government PR that these activists are the top terrorism threat.
DG: To follow that question, do you think that this movement is cooptable by market forces?
WP: I don't think any movement is immune from those kinds of pressures. We're seeing it take place right now. As everyone is "going green," corporations are “greenwashing”. Their message is clear: don't change your lifestyle, don't question fundamental economic and political systems, just buy different stuff…
DG: Do you think that all of the energy and focus on the repression of mostly white people involved in these cases takes away from acknowledging the disproportionate amount of people of color currently incarcerated in the US?
WP: Not unless we allow it to. Recognizing and challenging this crackdown, this injustice, does not mean we must downplay or ignore other systemic injustices. Instead, I think this is an opportunity for the animal rights and environmental movements to reach out to other communities, to say "we're experiencing now what you have experienced for years," and to move forward together.
It’s critical that activists fight back attacks on civil rights across movements, and learn across movements as well (like learning from past crackdowns on the Black Panther Party and American Indian Movement).
DG: I find that a lot of people who also care about the fate of the environment say not only what these people did was wrong, but it is also ineffective, how do you respond to those claims (which I assume you hear often)?
WP: It's irrelevant. In the case of property destruction by groups like the ELF and ALF, I'm not arguing, in any way, that sabotage isn't illegal. That's not the point. The question is not whether those actions are wrong, or if they're strategically unwise. The question is: Is it terrorism?
Beyond that, though, it should be noted that the government has not limited this Green Scare to individuals who have destroyed property. Lawful, aboveground activists have been targeted as terrorists, both through new legislation and PR smear campaigns. Not even mainstream groups like the Sierra Club and the Humane Society of the United States have been safe from the scare mongering.
DG: How did you get into covering this issue?
WP: A turning point for me was writing an article for the Texas Observer in 2001, about an activist sentenced to "no protesting" because of her use of non-violent civil disobedience. The judge compared the sentence, and keeping an animal rights activist away from a fur store, to keeping pedophiles away from schools. Through that I learned how widespread the problem already was, and have been reporting on this ever since.
DG: You are a professionally trained journalist (with both an undergrad and grad degree in journalism) and I am wondering if you have ever felt that your career would be threatened because you have focused so much attention on this controversial topic?
WP: In some ways. Focusing so much on this work, and doing so in a critical way, has certainly placed me on a different career path than I originally intended. Perhaps it has closed some doors. But following your passion has a way of opening up other opportunities that I feel have been much more rewarding.
DG: How do you have the strength to write about repression day after day?
WP: I wish I could say I'm strong enough to research, write and speak on these issues every day and not have it affect me. It certainly does. But I always try to put whatever I'm feeling in perspective. I try to remember that there have been countless journalists throughout U.S. and world history that have literally risked their lives to tell a story. I think we all should aspire to have even half that amount of courage.
DG: What kind of traffic does your blog get?
WP: It varies quite wildly, with anywhere from 1,000-15,000 unique visitors per day and growing.
DG: Do you have advice for artists and media makers who might care about these issues?
WP: Your work matters. That may sound silly or simplistic, but I have met so many amazing artists who sometimes look down on their own work as if it is not "real" activism. But you have so much power to educate and inspire, to shake up widely held beliefs and reinforce values that matter.
There have been so many days when I couldn't feel more down, more hopeless about all of this, and then stumbled across a tiny, spray-painted stencil on the street, or a song, or a video, or a performance, and felt like I had a fire lit under me. So I'll say it again: Your work matters.
1. For more info on his case: caedefensefund.org/
http://www.cnn.com/2005/US/08/24/schuster.column/index.html accessed 07/20/09. (back)