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Why Does the Govt. Treat Peaceful Enviro Activists More Harshly Than Extremists Who Aim to Kill?

Author Will Potter explores how environmental and animal rights activists concerned with civil disobedience and property destruction are labeled domestic terrorists.
 
 
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When you think of domestic terrorists, you don't tend to think of university undergraduates who engage in civil disobedience. But alongside men who are responsible for hundreds and even thousands of deaths, Tim DeChristopher has been labeled a terrorist and was recently convicted in federal court. His crime? At a sale where public land was auctioned off to private companies, he placed false bids alongside corporate giants to inflate the prices. Though Interior Secretary Ken Salazar later suspended the sale of most of the land, aggressive legal action was taken against DeChristopher's rather smart, strategic and truly non-violent resistance. He's currently awaiting sentencing and could receive up to 10 years in prison.

In his new book, Green Is The New Red: An Insider's Account of a Social Movement Under Siege, which is based on years of research and his popular blog of the same name, journalist and activist Will Potter delves into stories like DeChristopher's and the widespread, disproportionate crackdown on so-called eco-terrorism since 9/11. With personal insight -- Potter was once questioned by the FBI for handing out anti-cruelty leaflets in a Chicago suburb -- he explores how animal rights and environmental activists like DeChristopher concerned with civil disobedience and property destruction as a consciousness-raising tactic are labeled domestic terrorists as part of a modern-day Red Scare, the Green Scare. Other domestic and foreign terrorists, who take dozens of lives as part of extremist groups, are given far less media scrutiny and treated as mentally unstable outliers by authorities.

"An unspoken tenet of any terrorism definition is that it does not apply to the systemic violence of people in positions of power against the powerless," Potter writes. "It only applies when the flow of violence is redirected upstream, against government." An engaging, enlightening probe into the federal government's chilling effect on free speech and activism, Green Is The New Red is part personal narrative, part journalistic inquiry, part handbook for at-risk activists.

Brittany Shoot: Part of what you discuss in the book -- whether or not to use violence to raise awareness and force social change -- is perhaps the longest-running debate among leftist activists. How do you think violent action, even without human or animal casualties, influences public opinion of social justice advocacy?

Will Potter: I would extend that debate to the term "violent action." I can remember back to the mid- to late-'90s when Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and Animal Liberation Front (ALF) crimes seemed to be a bit more prominent, and there was a lot of debate about what the word "violence" means, and I think that's an important one to have, too. That automatically shapes the severity and tenor of the discussion when you're talking about destroying an SUV. In the book, I talk a bit about this and why I don't believe destroying property fits my and most people's conception of what the word "violence" means.

BS: Many of the activists you profiled are discussing or campaigning for the end of different types of cruelty and destruction. For example, people who seek to end horrific abuses of animals might break windows in a laboratory, or environmentalists might burn an SUV, yet the public conversation then focuses on property destruction rather than the ways humans systematically use, torture, and kill animals or the devastating effects of climate change.

WP: Right! I never mean to downplay the severity of property crimes, but I think we, as a country, have totally lost perspective. Burning an SUV can be dangerous, and it's a serious crime. It cost someone money, and it caused some harm. But you know, Osama bin Laden was just murdered. I've seen some really interesting discussions about this on Facebook within animal rights and environmental circles. A friend of mine said to someone who was going on about the greatness of Osama's death, "You've condemned groups like the ALF in the past for doing things like releasing animals or for breaking windows. But it's OK to cheer on this bloodshed?" The assumption with all of that is that property destruction or violence or illegality or radical action -- whatever you want to call it -- is always more appropriate if it's in line with systems of power. I think that's really the issue right now.

 
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