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How I Almost Got Put on the Domestic Terrorist List for Handing Out Leaflets

Will Potter explains how confronting animal abuse made the government target him as a terrorist -- and taught him to never hide from those who try to silence him.
 
 
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The following is an excerpt from The Next Eco Warriors: 22 Young Women and Men Who Are Saving The Planet, edited by Emily Hunter (Conari Press, 2011).

Eco-Terrorism 101

If you’ve got a blacklist, I want to be on it. —Billy Bragg

It started with a knock on the door. Someone had pounded three times. I turned the knob without looking through the peephole. It must be the landlord, I thought. He had gotten into the habit of arriving unannounced with prospective tenants to show our apartment, one of the freshly renovated studios in a 70-something-year-old building in Chicago. Before I had opened the door, though, I knew it was not Steve the Landlord. Our dogs were barking. Wildly. The dogs, Mindy and Peter, were snarling, and they never snarled, they never growled. I opened the door anyway.

The guys behind it—gruff-looking early-30s guys with manicured goatees, navy suits, ties with outdated geometric patterns, scuffed black shoes, broad shoulders, hardjaw lines, wholesome haircuts, and eyes looking for fights—were just naturally FBI agents. I didn’t even need to see the badges.

I just said I was in a hurry, that I had to get ready for work, and then I started to close the door. The good cop—well, I will call him the good cop, only because he looked less eager to kick my ass—put his left palm on the gray steel door, firmly enough to put pressure but not firmly enough to make any noise. I could either come downstairs, he said, or they could make a visit to my place of work, the Chicago Tribune.

Dogs barked. Panic. I was not afraid of them, but I was afraid of a spectacle in the newsroom. I relented and then closed the door to get ready.

“What’s going on?” my girlfriend, Kamber, asked from the futon, half asleep.

“It’s the FBI,” I said matter-of-factly, as if it had been Steve the Landlord.

A few minutes later, we crammed into the freight elevator, good cop, bad cop, and me. The elevator ground to a halt, the latticework steel door creaked open, and we walked through the dark hallway to the alley. It was a gloriously sunny Chicago summer day, but the sunlight could not overcome the condominium towers of steel and glass, could not swim through the cracks in the walls, and so I stepped into an alley shrouded in gray.

In college, I had learned about government operations like the counter intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), and the FBI’s history of harassing and intimidating political activists. False names, phone taps, bugs, and infiltration were used in attempts to disrupt groups like the Black Panthers, American Indian movement, and Students for a Democratic Society. I had learned from books, professors, and Law & Order episodes that if approached by the FBI, for any reason, you should never talk. Nothing good can come of it.

Both good cop and bad cop had heard that line before. The shorter, “nicer” cop started talking anyway.

“Look, we just want to talk to you,” he said. “We want you to help us out. We can make all this go away.”

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Working long hours on the metro desk at the Chicago Tribune, covering shooting after shooting, murder after murder, had turned me into the type of reporter I never wanted to become. I felt detached, apathetic, and cynical. Just before the visit from the FBI, I wrote in my journal, “I’m tired of writing meaningless stories, I’m tired of going to sleep at night feeling like I left the world the same way I saw it in the morning.”

After only a few months at the Tribune, I had already built a spectacular wall of emotional detachment. It felt as if it were made of broken bottles and concrete chunks, sharp and gray. I thought I would never survive this beat, unless i found some way to keep a toehold on my humanity. So I decided to go leafleting.

When I worked at the Texas Observer, I wrote a story about an animal rights activist who was prohibited from protesting fur stores as a condition of her sentence for nonviolent civil disobedience. In my research of other draconian legal attacks on activists, I also learned about Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty, an international campaign that had formed for the sole purpose of closing the notorious animal-testing lab Huntingdon Life Sciences.

Five undercover investigations had exposed animal welfare violations in the lab. I remember sitting in the Texas observer office, downloading a clip of undercover video filmed inside of Huntingdon. It showed animal experimenters with beagle puppies. The puppies’ veins were too small, and one of the experimenters could not insert a needle. He grew frustrated. He shook the dog and then suddenly punched the puppy in the face, hard enough to knock a grown man down. I will never forget that dog’s punctuating wails.

When if decided I wanted to do something positive to balance out the futility I felt at the Tribune, I decided to leaflet about Huntingdon. one month prior to FBI agents knocking on my door, Kamber and I met six local activists at the a-zone (or autonomous zone) in Chicago, which was part independent bookstore and part rabblerouser gathering place. it offered titles on topics including the Zapatistas, herbal medicine, and bicycle repair, and it smelled like punk rock.

From there, we caravaned to a suburb north of Chicago and the home of a corporate executive with Marsh, Inc., an insurance company for Huntingdon. Once out of the van, I hung leaflets on front doors, urging their Marsh neighbor to cease doing business with Huntingdon Life Sciences. The fliers made no suggestions of violence or property destruction, they made no threats. Instead, they spelled out what went on in the lab, how Marsh is connected, and why readers should ask their neighbor to use his power wisely.

After about twenty minutes of leafleting, police arrived. They radioed back and forth with their headquarters, trying to decide what to do. Then they handcuffed us.

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After the FBI agents followed me out of the apartment building and into the alley, bad cop started needling. He asked if I knew the type of people involved in the campaign to close Huntingdon. He said they were “extremists.”

“I can tell you’re a good guy,” he said. “You have a lot going for you.” he said he could tell by the way I dressed, where I lived. “You don’t want this to mess up your life, kid. We need your help.”

He told me I could help them by providing more information about the other defendants and other animal rights groups. I had two days to decide. He gave me a scrap of paper with his phone number, written on it underneath his name, Chris.

“If we don’t hear from you by the first trial date,” he said, “I’ll put you on the domestic terrorist list.”

Wait, what? I felt as if I was staring blankly ahead, but my eyes must have shown fear.

“Now I have your attention, huh?” he said.

Put me on a terrorist list for leafleting?

“Look,” Chris said, “after 9/11, we have a lot more authority now to get things done and get down to business. We can make your life very difficult for you. You work at a newspaper? I can make it so you never work at a newspaper again.”

I replied that people who write letters, who leaflet, are not the same people who break the law. As I walked away, I crumpled his phone number and tossed it in a nearby dumpster, and just before I left the shadows and could reach the sunlight, Chris said, “have a good day at work at the metro desk.

Say hello to your editor, Susan Keaton. And tell Kamber we’ll come see her later.”

I wish I could say the visit did not affect me. But the history nerd in me could not help but think about all the times when the government had targeted political activists. I could not help but think about the deportation of Emma Goldman and the relentless spying and harassment of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I thought of the White Rose, a group of students my age who covertly printed and distributed anti-Nazi leaflets and, when caught, when interrogated and tortured, refused to show fear. They were beheaded. I had always hoped, as we all do after reading stories like this, that if I were ever put in a similar position, I would not flinch.

But I was afraid. Even though I never considered, even for a moment, becoming an informant, I could not stop thinking about how I was on a domestic terrorist list. I was convinced my journalism career was over. Even worse, I was convinced these FBI agents would somehow pass the word to my parents, who would be so disappointed in me, and to my little sister, who would stop looking up to me. These thoughts burrowed somewhere deep behind my eyes and, no matter how irrational they sound, I began to see them as truth.

I did not know it then, but this experience would mark the beginning of both a personal and political journey. After the initial fear subsided, I became obsessed with finding out why I would be targeted as a terrorist for nothing more than leafleting. The focus of my life would shift to investigating how animal rights and environmental activists had become, according to the FBI, the “number one domestic terrorism threat.”

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In hindsight the path from that FBI visit to my current life seems completely straight and natural. In reality, I spent years straddling fences, cautiously poised between “unbiased” reporting and advocacy journalism, between my career and the passions I have labeled side projects.

I made some small efforts to climb down. I left an “unbiased” newspaper job covering politics in Washington, DC, to use my writing for very biased purposes at the American Civil Liberties union, ghostwriting op-eds and speeches on the Patriot Act and government surveillance. At night, I continued researching and writing about activists being labeled terrorists. Through my work at the ACLU, and my freelance reporting, the true scope of the attacks on political activists came into focus.

The environmental movement, like all social movements, has a wide range of elements. There are people who leaflet and write letters. And there are underground groups like the Earth Liberation Front, which have vandalized SUVs, burned ski resorts, and destroyed genetically engineered crops. Even at their most extreme, none of these tactics have injured a single human being. Not one.

Meanwhile, the department of homeland Security does not list right wing terrorists on a list of national security threats, and the FBI omits right wing attacks in its annual terrorism reports. Those groups have been responsible for the Oklahoma city bombing, the Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta, violence against doctors, and admittedly creating weapons of mass destruction.

Through my reporting, I learned that environmental and animal rights activists are being labeled terrorists not because of violence, but because of their beliefs. Corporations and the politicians who represent them have waged a coordinated campaign to push their political agenda.

They have sent out press releases accusing mainstream organizations like the Sierra club, PETA, and Greenpeace of supporting “eco-terrorism.” the children’s movie Hoot has been dubbed “soft-core eco-terrorism for kids.” American Idol star Carrie Underwood was smeared as supporting terrorists when she encouraged her fans to support the Humane Society.

Examples like this would be funny if they had not worked their way into the top levels of government. In 2006, politicians proposed “eco-terrorism” legislation similar to bills that had been introduced at the state level for years. Because of my reporting, colleagues at the ACLU recommended that I testify at a hearing by the house Judiciary committee. Leading democrats on that committee agreed. Suddenly, the fears that I thought I had overcome began to crawl back into my head.

If I challenged this legislation, the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, would I be smeared as an “animal rights terrorist”? Would FBI agents fulfill their promises from years ago and tell members of congress that I am on a domestic terrorist list? Would the representative from Wisconsin turn to me and ask, “Mr. Potter, are you now, or have you ever been, a vegetarian?”

The historian Howard Zinn always advised his students, “you can’t be neutral on a moving train.” the committee staff explicitly told me that democratic leadership supported this bill; I was to speak about my reporting but not challenge the legislation. Meanwhile, corporations and industry groups wanted nothing more than for their bill to proceed unchallenged. The train was moving, I thought, whether anyone liked it or not.

I decided I would not be a token gesture of dissent in their spectacle of democracy. Rather than propose modest tweaks to the bill, I testified that lawmakers must reject it in its entirety. I said that scarce terrorism resources should not be exploited to protect corporate interests. In my testimony, I compared the “eco-terrorist” legislation and scare mongering to one of the darkest periods of U.S. history, the communist witch hunts of the Red Scare.

As I awaited questions from members of congress and braced myself for the reaction from the democrats who invited me, I looked down at my notes and at my hands. It struck me that they were perfectly still. It was an empowering feeling, to have my words and my actions completely in line with my beliefs. Never in my life had I felt so calm.

Immediately after the hearing, I began calling activist groups and urged them to notify their members about the legislation. I began to write regularly for a Web site I created, GreenIsTheNewRed.com. And I began speaking at law schools, conferences, churches, potlucks, punk rock shows—anywhere I could to raise awareness about the law and help stop it.

Months later, the law was rushed through the House of Representatives with only six members of congress in the room. Most lawmakers were breaking ground for a new memorial honoring Martin Luther King Jr. when legislation was being passed that labeled King’s tactics—including nonviolent civil disobedience—as terrorism.

It was a major defeat, and for the corporations who supported the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, it was only the beginning. Since then, similar legislation has been introduced in many other states.

In Utah, a lawmaker said legislation is needed to target people like Tim Dechristopher, the University of Utah student who disrupted an oil and gas auction by bidding on parcels of land. In Tennessee, Rep. Frank Niceley argued before the general assembly for eco-terrorism legislation, saying, “Eco-terrorists are left-wing eco-greenies. It’s a different type of terrorism. They don’t have Osama Bin Laden leadin’ them.”

So how have these “eco-terrorism” laws been used? In California, four activists were arrested under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act for protesting animal experimentation outside of the experimenter’s home. Their indictment lists that they chanted, protested, made fliers, and wrote slogans on the ground in children’s sidewalk chalk. As I write this, they are awaiting trial.

For those who have been convicted as “terrorists,” the label follows them from the courtroom into prison. for example, Daniel McGowan was arrested in 2005 for his role in two arsons by the Earth Liberation Front. He targeted genetic engineering and a timber company that logged old-growth forests. In a court hearing, the lead prosecutor called the Earth Liberation Front a terrorist organization and compared the property destruction of McGowan and his codefendants to the violence of the Ku Klux Klan.

McGowan pleaded guilty to his charges and was sentenced to prison as a terrorist. He is now incarcerated in a secretive prison facility on U.S. soil, called a communications management unit (CMU). He was transferred there without notice and without opportunity for appeal.

The CMUs 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. Inmates and guards at the CMUs call them “Little Guantanamo.” they have also been described as prisons for “second-tier” terrorists.

According to the Bureau of Prisons, these inmates “do not rise to the same degree of potential risk to national security” as other terrorism inmates. Most prisoners are Muslim, and the secretive prisons have also housed Andrew Stepanian, an animal rights activist convicted of “animal enterprise terrorism” charges.

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 the government would like to keep secret.

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My experiences with the FBI pales in comparison to what many activists have endured, both during this “Green Scare” and in other eras of government repression. I have not been threatened with prison time, terrorism enhancement penalties, or anything like that. However, my experience has prompted the stark realization that the overly broad use of the word terrorism affects many more people than those who set foot in a courtroom.

Few activists will be visited by the FBI, even fewer will be arrested. The real purpose of all this—the FBI visits, the public relations campaigns, the legislation—is to instill fear and make everyday people afraid of speaking up for their beliefs. The scare-mongering has had what attorneys call a chilling effect: it has made everyday people feel as if they must choose between their activism and being labeled a terrorist, and that is not a choice anyone should have to make.

It can be unsettling and frightening to learn how far the government has gone to attack political activists, and sometimes I wonder if spreading this information simply makes more people afraid. But time and again, in dozens of venues, from the New York City Bar Association to anarchist bookstores, I have seen an incredible thing happen when people learn about these issues and then turn to their neighbors. Their conversations are never about how they are afraid; they are about how they are angry and want to take action.

The best way to handle the fear these scare tactics create, I learned, is to confront it head on. “Never turn your back on fear,” Hunter S. Thompson wrote. “It should always be in front of you, like a thing that might have to be killed.”

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The leafleting case in Chicago was eventually dismissed, and we decided to move back to Texas. Kamber and I packed our few belongings and prepared for the journey home. I dreaded moving day. Not because of any attachment to the city, but because I did not want to walk downstairs, through the marble lobby with its Corinthian columns and Victorian couches, and enter Steve the Landlord’s office to turn in our keys. He knew, I thought. He must.

The building was old, but secure. The FBI agents did not kick down any doors when they visited our apartment. They flashed badges and were escorted inside. They probably told Steve that Kamber and I were suspected terrorists, and that this was a national security matter that needed urgent attention. Perhaps they showed him my photo, film noir style. Would he even buzz me into his office? I wondered. Would he ask me to slide the keys under the door, to keep me at a safe distance? Would he refuse to return my security deposit, because there was a “no terrorist” clause in the fine print of the lease?

I opened his door and walked up to his desk as he spoke with a couple of prospective tenants. I tried to silently slip the keys across the desk, but they jangled like jailer’s keys, and the sound of metal on wood echoed up into the vaulted ceiling. I turned, exhaled, and walked away. He called after me when I was almost to the doorway. Here it comes, I thought. Steve the Landlord is going to say how disappointed he is in both of us. How he is going to take custody of the dogs because they should not live with such terrorist scum.

“Hey, will,” he said. I turned to face him. “Give ’em hell.”

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Will Potter is an award-winning independent journalist based in Washington, DC. He has just released his first book, Green Is The New Red, from City Lights Books.
 
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