Interview with Will Potter
ALDF Staff Writer Jennifer Molidor spoke with Will Potter: author of Green is the New Red: an Insider’s Account of a Social Movement Under Siege, a thrilling memoir that contextualizes the federal Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA). Will is an award-winning independent journalist based in Washington, D.C., who focuses on “eco-terrorism,” the animal rights and environmental movements, and civil liberties post-9/11. His work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the Huffington Post, and the Vermont Law Review.
As an award-winning and highly-respected journalist, how is it that you received threats from the FBI?
WILL: My background is in reporting for newspapers and magazines. I’ve written about some of these issues for the Texas Observer in 2000-2001. Later on I was a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. During this time I was arrested for leafleting in the suburbs of North Chicago–and those charges were later of course thrown out of court. A couple of weeks later, I was visited by two FBI agents who threatened to put me on the domestic terrorism list unless I helped them by becoming an informant, investigating animal rights groups. I’d been exposed to these issues previously–but it was a turning point for me in becoming really obsessed with finding out how these activists became “the number one domestic terrorism threat” and how all this really happened.
And you were called to testify before the U.S. Congress?
WILL: I initially viewed testifying about my work as an honor and an opportunity to really shape public dialogue about this–but I quickly realized that behind the scenes everything had already been decided and I was intended to only raise minor objections about the law. So of course, I decided to go much further than that and call for the complete rejection of legislation, and other efforts around the country, which kind of surprised some of the members of the committee.
What does the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) target? Does it violate the First Amendment?
WILL: It expands a law that was already on the books called the Animal Enterprise Protection Act (AEPA) and according to corporations and the FBI and the Justice Department, this was needed because the previous law was inadequate in going after radical groups. That simply was untrue though. That’s a complete lie that’s been said repeatedly. The previous law has been used in sweeping cases involving first amendment activity, and this law goes even further. According to some, it locks up nonviolent civil disobedience and a wide range of activities that threaten corporate profits of animal enterprises. I think the biggest danger of the legislation isn’t the restitution provisions but the fear it has created.
The law doesn’t specifically outlaw First Amendment activity–but it makes people afraid. Attorneys reading this know the “chilling effect” and how in many cases that can be much more damaging than an outright attack on a person and an activity. I think that’s what’s going on here and why it’s clearly unconstitutional.
You describe undercover video investigations as a “window” into agricultural cruelty against animals. Why are these investigations so important?
WILL: We’ve seen, in the last couple of years, the true power of undercover investigators completely changing the national dialogue about animal welfare, factory farming, and veganism. With very few resources, and video equipment, activists are able to expose what goes on in factory farms in ways that have never been done before. Their YouTube videos and their media campaigns have reached millions of people. They have completely changed the national discussion about the proper way of treating animals in agriculture and whether or not they should be used at all, and whether people should go vegetarian and vegan.
… In some ways what these activists are showing makes Upton Sinclair’s ‘Jungle’ look tame by comparison. Because the power of this video is it brings to life things that people would never be able to see on their own. And that’s why they’re being met with such harsh oppression right now–they’ve been so effective.
And I think that the danger of these Ag-Gag bills isn’t just to the undercover investigators themselves. This bill raise questions about the protection of journalists and newsgathering; it raises serious questions about consumer safety, about animal welfare and environmental violations, and I think people need to be asking “what is it that Big Agriculture is trying to hide?”
What is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and how is corporate cash tied to AETA?
WILL: The American Legislative Exchange Council is a secretive organization that allows corporations to literally write bills that have been introduced around the country–with lawmakers having no idea that they were actually drafted by corporations themselves.
These bills are on all manner of topic–including a model ecological and animal terrorism act. ALEC’s model bill goes so far that it labels undercover investigations as an act of terrorism, creates terrorist registries, akin to a sex offender registry. It also criminalizes any organization that publicly supports people accused of this style of investigation–as terrorism. It’s been a key element to shifting the legislative focus of state governments around the country. ALEC’s model bill has not passed in full in any state- but that’s not really the point. The point is to introduce to relay the dialogue about it, to pass whatever portion possible, and then lay a foundation, the groundwork, so they can come back and try to get even more.
What drew you to the analogy between the “Red scare” and the current “Green” scare?
WILL: I began using this comparison because I thought it was a good way to get people’s attention and draw everyone’s eye to a past era that’s really a black mark on US history. But the more I became immersed in this issue the more I came to believe not just the comparison between what’s going on right now and the red scare–but what’s going on right now is similar to many other periods of government oppression. Many of the tactics have remained the same. So I don’t mean to say what’s going on right now the same as what happened in the 1940s and 50s, but the mechanisms are quite similar, and I think we can gain a lot by putting this in historical context.
Why is there such a backlash against people who simply don’t want animals to be abused?
WILL: I think it’s helpful to look at how that operated during the ‘red scare’ because there were really two types of threat–one was a direct threat to national security posed by communist groups. But the second type of threat was much more dangerous and that was the cultural threat. I mean that’s why the FBI maintained files on movies like It’s a Wonderful Life.
I think what we’re seeing today reflects that two-pronged approach. We have activists posing a direct threat to corporate profits, through their activism: threatening money. But we also have them posing an indirect threat, or a cultural threat. I think in many ways the animal rights and environmental movements are fundamentally questioning to be a human being. And questioning a deeply held belief that human beings are the center of the universe and we have the right to do with other species however we please. For many people, that butts up against some very longstanding religious beliefs, cultural traditions, industry, pharmaceuticals, agriculture, and transportation. It really brings all that into question. I think what we’re seeing right now is not only a corporate backlash, but also a cultural war.
So how worried should we be?
WILL: I think there’s a lot of power to be gained by informing ourselves about how exactly this is happening. By closely examining it, it takes away the mystery and the mystique, and hopefully it takes away a lot of that fear and paranoia. Fear thrives on ignorance and darkness and when we shed a light on what’s happening it helps to shift that fear into anger–and focus on what’s really going on.
That being said, we are in very difficult times right now, and I think it is important for people to know their rights and know what they think; and also to remind folks that at the end of the day, this is happening because these activists are incredibly effective. And they can’t stop the movement just because it’s being met with resistance.
Read Will Potter’s Congressional Testimony.