The New, New McCarthyism

Green Is the New Red: An Insider’s Account of a Social Movement Under Siege
By Will Potter
City Lights, 2011, 256 Pages

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Correction: Due to an editing error, a sentence was omitted from the final paragraph of this review. It should have read:

Two years after they were arrested, the SHAC 7 were found guilty on all counts, including conspiracy to violate the Animal Enterprise Protection Act. Their sentencing coincided with a broader crackdown on the radical environmental movement. A number of those arrested agreed to name names, one committed suicide, and others were sentenced to years in prison for crimes now considered acts of terrorism.

None of the members of the SHAC 7 named names or committed suicide. We regret the error.

On May 26, 2004, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller held a press conference to announce that Al Qaeda was planning a major attack on the United States. Two months earlier, 191 people were killed and another 1,800 injured when several bombs were set off in Madrid. Terrorism warnings of the sort Ashcroft and Mueller offered had become commonplace in the post-9/11 landscape and there were fears that an attack like the one in Spain might be replicated in the United States. Out of public view, however, the federal government was waging a war against what it considers an equally serious threat: animal rights extremists and eco-terrorism.

On that same morning in May 2004, FBI agents stormed the homes of seven animal rights activists in California. The group of young men and women had been working on a campaign to shut down Huntingdon Life Sciences, a research lab that kills tens of thousands of animals annually to test household products, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and food ingredients. Drawing on the success of efforts in the UK (Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty, or SHAC, was launched there in the late 1990s) the group engaged in fairly traditional tactics – organizing protests, distributing leaflets, publishing newsletters, and maintaining a website. The group also publicized the underground efforts, including arson and eco-sabotage, of other loosely affiliated groups including the Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front (ELF). (The group posted a disclaimer on its website saying it they did not engage in illegal activity but supported those who did.)

The story of how the SHAC 7 came to be branded as domestic terrorists is the subject of Will Potter’s important new book, Green Is the New Red, a deeply troubling account of the federal government’s crackdown on the radical environmental movement. Since 9/11, a great deal has written about the expansion of the national security state and the threat to civil liberties. The details of the Patriot Act and the Bush administration’s use of illegal wiretapping have been thoroughly scrutinized. But far less attention has been paid to how the government has placed the surveillance and prosecution of environmental dissidents on par with pursuing Al Qaeda.

During a 2004 Senate hearing called “Animal Rights: Activism vs. Criminality,” John E. Lewis, then the deputy assistant director of counterterrorism for the FBI, laid out the agency’s focus: “The FBI’s investigation of animal rights extremists and eco-terrorism matters is our highest domestic terrorism investigation priority.” This, despite the fact that not a single person had been killed or injured by environmental or animal rights activists. One can debate the merits of arson as a form of protest, but to label it terrorism of the kind practiced by groups like Al Qaeda is a stretch.

Meanwhile, as Potter points out, the killing of physicians who perform abortions (eight were murdered between 1977 and 2009) and even Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma were treated as isolated crimes and not acts of terrorism. Why the difference? In Potter’s view, the animal rights and radical environmental movements were beginning to achieve a measure of public appeal that posed a real threat to powerful corporate interests, which lobbied to silence them.

“The government treats attacks on corporate property more seriously than violence against doctors and minorities not because of the nature of the crime but because of the politics of the crime,” Potter writes.

Two years after they were arrested, the SHAC 7 were found guilty on all counts, including conspiracy to violate the Animal Enterprise Protection Act. A number of those arrested agreed to name names, one committed suicide, and others were sentenced to years in prison. Another person convicted of eco-terrorism, Daniel McGowan of the ELF, was eventually transferred to a special prison known as “Little Guantanamo” where he is allowed one 15-minute telephone call per week and four visitation hours a month – conditions far more restrictive than the Supermax prison that holds Zacarias Moussaoui and Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph.

Potter writes: “If there is one thing that should be learned from history from governments that have gone down this path, it is this: secretive prisons for ‘second-tier’ terrorists are often followed by secretive prisons for ‘third-tier terrorists’ and ‘fourth-tier terrorists,’ until one by one, brick by brick, the legal wall separating ‘terrorist’ from ‘dissident’ or ‘undesirable’ has crumbled.”

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