Will Potter, Green Is The New Red
Will Potter is an award-winning independent journalist based in Washington, D.C who focuses on “eco-terrorism,” the environmental and animal rights movements and civil liberties post-9/11. He is the author of Green Is The New Red and has written for publications including the Chicago Tribune, the Dallas Morning News and Legal Affairs, and has testified before the U.S. Congress about his reporting. Potter has also worked at the American Civil Liberties Union on policy issues including the Patriot Act. He is the creator of GreenIsTheNewRed.com where he blogs about the Green Scare.
Caryn Hartglass: Hello everybody, I’m Caryn Hartglass. You’re listening to It’s All About Food. It’s February 11th, 2014, and how are you feeling today? I am sitting here with a lovely, white, ginger peach tea, and before we get into the program, I just want to ask you, are you valuing this moment – this moment of freedom that you have? This moment where you have the choice to listen to what you want, and to really do what it is that you want to do in your life. We really have a lot of choices, and how often do we acknowledge them or take them for granted? Freedom is a curious and interesting thing to think about, and this show is going to get a little chilling because we are going to talk about how some of our rights may be whittling away as we speak. So let’s get right to it. I want to bring out my guest, Will Potter. He is an award-winning, independent journalist based in Washington DC who focuses on “eco-terrorism.” That’s in quotes, “eco-terrorism” – the environmental and animal rights movement and civil liberties post 9/11. He has written for publications including the Chicago Tribune, The Dallas Morning News, and Legal Affairs, and has testified before the US Congress about his reporting. Potter has also worked at the American Civil Liberties Union on policy issues, including the Patriot Act. He’s the creator of greenisthenewred.com, where he blogs about the green scare. Welcome to It’s All About Food, Will.
Will Potter: Hi Caryn, thanks for having me on the show.
Caryn Hartglass: Thank you. You know I don’t know if we’ve ever met, but I’m looking at your picture and you look like a very cool guy.
Will Potter: -laugh- Well, I appreciate that.
Caryn: Anyway, I read your book, Green is the New Red. O-o-o-o-o-h. What kind of times are we living in? Thank you for writing this book…and it’s scary.
Will: You know it is, but with everything going on right now, I think most people aren’t really aware of the scope of what’s taking place, especially against protestors and against our basic rights right now.
Caryn: There’s a – I’ve been doing some work with climate change, and the one analogy that always tickles me is about how frogs can be in warm water, and as you slowly heat up the water, they don’t know it until it’s too hot and they’re dead. And I think that analogy can apply to so many things and our freedom. Our freedom – things can slowly be affecting it until finally it’s gone.
Will: And that’s certainly something that’s motivated my work, and I think especially after September 11th, we saw how that cultural change takes place and how all of a sudden we find ourselves in a much different environment – we don’t realize how we got there. Everything has become so normal in that 10 years, 11 years since September 11th is now, not even questioned anymore.
Caryn Hartglass: Ok, so your story basically is about a number of different individuals that you’ve known and that you were involved with from time to time, in one way or another, and some of these individuals, some got in a bit of trouble with the FBI, and were put in prison. And, the question is, should they have gone to prison? Were they punished too severely or not enough? And, what’s going on? And who’s looking at us and why? So, this was specifically with regard to animal rights after this, and I know my listeners know on this program that there’s a lot of horror going on with animals today – not only, ho, not only – where do I get started? Certainly we have – I think the number is now up to 70 billion land animals that are killed for food every year, and they’re not treated very nicely, little known the slaughter that they go through. And then there are animals that are exploited for testing on all kinds of different products, and to read about some of these experiments are just…you just wonder, what species do we belong to? And how can anybody do these things? But they do, and then you can imagine some people are outraged about this, and reactions can vary, and some people actually got violent about it, and then were punished.
Will Potter: Right, I mean for years motivated by that – that injustice and seeing what’s taking place against the environment, against the animals, there’s a movement that has been growing very quickly and very boldly. And in the beginning of the early 1980s, it just took a drastic shift in public consciousness and really had widespread public support, even for more militant tactics. And in response to that, industries that were being protested had a real problem on their hands. And as people learned about these issues and the public supported the protestors – they wanted to change that dialog and that’s really where this eco-terrorism language comes in. I mean, these corporations made up that word in about 1985 to shift public opinion – to shift opinion against the protestors. And over the next several decades, they used that language to the point where it became at the top of FBI priority.
Caryn Hartglass: Now, I’m not a supporter of violence, but my understanding through reading your book is that some of these people who destroyed property – property of animal testing laboratories and fur farms – anything related to animals that are being exploited, they were not…punished relative to similar activity. They were punished more severely.
Will Potter: Absolutely. And it’s important to point out also that we’re talking about these even more radical tactics. In the history of these movements, no human being has ever been injured. So, these are incredibly controversial, and we’re talking about them, and there certainly, in some cases, have been illegal actions that have taken place, but never physical violence. And yet, when people have been prosecuted in the name of the animal liberation front or earth liberation front, which are underground, illegal groups that have done things like that, like steal animals from laboratories, release animals from fur farms, vandalize property, break windows, set buildings on fire, the most extreme – they’ve been prosecuted as terrorists, which re-classifies them in the prison system, allows for a much more severe punishment, and some of the ways completely redefine who they are under the law and also in the public consciousness, because this language is incredibly powerful of turning public opinion against people who are facing many years in prison.
Caryn Hartglass: Can we talk about this term, terrorism, because you spent a good deal of time in the book talking about how we don’t really have a well-defined explanation of what it is in order to prosecute using that term.
Will Potter: And that was one of the most difficult sections of the book to research and write, because I came to realize that there isn’t any agreed upon definition of the word within the federal government, between state governments, even within international governments. The United Nations has no agreed upon definition of terrorism, the FBI has a different definition than the CIA and Homeland Security, let alone between other countries, and really, at the heart of all that, is the fact that this word has its very history – an intention of being used against people to demonize them and to shift opinion and consciousness against them. So, it’s been used, of course, throughout world history as people that are seen as dissonance or radicals or extremists. And now we’re entering in an era where it’s become really divorced from what people are actually doing, whether they’re actually harming any human beings or not, and instead is being applied to people because of what they believe, whether they are seen as radical in their own thoughts and in their own politics.
Caryn Hartglass: Now, we hear lots of different things about corporations and their power and the amount of money they have and how they influence our government, and there are all kinds of policy that reflects that. So you mentioned earlier that companies were concerned about the – about the attention that animal rights activists have been getting in the mid-80s and later and they wanted to do something about it, and then 9/11 happened, and they had the attention of the government and more power, and they were able to craft some laws and ultimately, because things aren’t defined to well, use them so that animal rights, the few activists that were imprisoned, could actually be weakened, and scare us into trying to bring out to the public what needs to be heard, which needs to be seen, so that we can make positive changes.
Will Potter: That’s exactly right, and for years, this was all framed under that new laws and new tactics were needed to go after these radical activists, these extremists. And for decades, that’s how the argument was shaped by these industries – that people were breaking the law, that they were stealing animals, they were destroying property, raiding fur farms. Now, what’s happening is, that’s not even the focus at all. Legislation has been introduced across the country, for instance, called ag-gag bills, and these ag-gag bills are directly targeting people who photograph and film animal welfare abuses on factory farms and slaughterhouses. And these laws have actually passed in a couple of states already – Utah, Iowa, and Missouri – and they are being considered in several others right now, for instance in Idaho. And the language is so broad, that it not only targets investigators and people who record what happens on these facilities, but also puts people like me at risk, because a journalist who’s reporting on these abuses, and it also puts people at risk who are working in these places, see what happens, and blow the whistle on these types of abuses. So in other words, this idea of eco-terrorism has been nothing but a ploy by these industries for years now to try to silence anyone who is exposing what actually is happening behind closed doors, whether it’s more radical activists, or now groups like the humane society.
Caryn Hartglass: And it’s – what it’s doing is whittling away at our free speech. It’s whittling away on the ability to be a whistle blower and point out things that are going on within an organization, within a company that are bad for the environment or very cruel. And those people that might be a whistle blower or share this story, without doing any violence at all, can have their lives ruined.
Will Potter: Lawyers have – under the law there is a phrase called “the chilling effect” – it’s referring to the concept that first amendment activity might not be specifically outlawed, but when you have legislation that makes people afraid of speaking up and using their rights, it has the same effect. And I would argue that’s at the heart of why these attempts are unconstitutional, and the message that I’m here with today is not that everyone who’s listening to this program or who cares about animals or the environment is going to be labeled as a terrorist or go to prison or be prosecuted. My concern is that this language is so vague and so broad, new laws like the animal enterprise terrorism act are so sweeping that it’s making everyday people afraid of whether or not that’s going to happen – making people self-censor what they think, what they speak out about, and that’s dangerous to democracy. That shapes our public discourse and it really has a disastrous effect on public debate.
Caryn Hartglass: All right, so that’s one huge, big topic, and people need to be thinking about it. Now let’s move to what happens if you happen to get…caught, and are sent to prison. You have a story in here about one of these activists who was actually sent to a special prison in the US, a communication management unit, and that sounded pretty scary, and he really – whether he deserved to be in prison for the length that he was in, he certainly didn’t deserve to be sent to one of these facilities. Can you talk about what a communication management unit is?
Will Potter: Sure, so Daniel McGowan is an environmental activist who’s involved in crimes by the Earth Liberation Front. When he was being sentenced, his attorneys argued for the judge – they were so concerned about him being labeled a terrorist, because it could reclassify him within the prison system, and potentially result in him being housed in one of these, at the time, new prison units that were designed for domestic terrorists. And the judge says, “Oh that’s conspiracy, that’s outrageous. He has nothing to worry about.” Well, turns out that’s precisely what happened. There are now two of these prison facilities in the country. They’re called communication management units. They exist in Terra Haute, Indiana, and Marion, Illinois. According to the government, they are for prisoners with “inspirational significance.” That’s the language of the proposal that has been issued –
Caryn Hartglass: “Inspirational significance?”
Will Potter: That’s right.
Caryn Hartglass: What does that mean?!
Will Potter: I, of course, would argue that that’s nothing but a euphemism for describing political prisoners – people who are there, who are singled out because of, not what they did, but the politics of what they did. Included Daniel McGowen, an environmentalist, Andrew Stepanian, an animal rights activist, and this place is an overwhelmingly houses Muslim prisoners, over 90%, and these are not the 9/11 hijackers of the world. They’re not the Zacarias Moussaouis, these are people like Doctor Rafil Dhafir, who – the physician in upstate New York who sent medical supplies to the children of Iraq in violation of the US sanctions – political, very political case. And these places radically restrict prisoner communications with the outside world. I was able to visit Daniel as a friend, not as a journalist, because no journalists are ever allowed there. You’re not able to take any notes, you’re not able to certainly to have a camera, to have any formal interview with prisoners. They only ever allow a couple of hours a visitation a month, a handful of minutes on the phone. Everything is live monitored by the counter terrorism unit. And all of this is created without any oversight, I mean there are no checks and balances on this win of the bureau of prisons. I would argue, in my opinion, it was opened illegally because there was no public comment period, and the federal government has very little to say about any of this. It’s operating right now in the United States with no checks and balances and no accountability.
Caryn Hartglass: Wow. Okay, let’s talk about the people in your book that went to prison. Are they all out now?
Will Potter: Almost everyone, yea, there’s still a few people that are in prison, and since that time, there have been other cases that have moved forward. I mean, that’s one of the difficult things of writing this book, because it’s our history of how we got to this point, but the story is still continuing and evolving right now.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, so…what – can – we – do?
Will Potter: Well that, of course, is the hardest possible question, and I think we all feel that it’s with all the issues that we care about right now. We start to see the scope of what we’re up against, it can feel very alarming, I mean, I do the work that I do because as a journalist, I really have an unwavering faith in the power of education. I think that nearly every issue and social justice issue that we care about and that people listening to this care about, whether you’re an animal rights activist or not, really is grounded in that education, and I think that is at the root at how we begin to move forward, is by honestly looking at what’s taking place. I mean it’s shocking to me the extent to which people just don’t know. I do a lot of speaking events at universities in the US and internationally and in media, and now a fellow with TED and meeting a very different group of people through that, and people just have no idea what’s going on. The scope of this legislation, laws that are now in the books that people have never heard about, even some members of congress don’t know about, and I think that has to be the start. Where we go from there is really up to us. I mean, it’s about using that education to bring a whole new group of people under the tent, so to speak, and learning about these issues, but also building the connections with other social movements and signaling we’re all at risk here. This legislation, this reckless use of the language of terrorism puts all of our civil rights at risk, and that’s why we need to come together under this issue.
Caryn Hartglass: Yea, that’s very important what you just said, because I want to improve all the lives of animals. I became a vegan a long time ago because I didn’t believe in killing animals, and as I learned over the years, more and more horrible stories about how terribly animals are treated, not just for food, but for so many different things, and I want that to stop. So, I support a lot of animal rights projects and activities, not violence though, personally, but there are lots of different things that we can do. But the point is that it’s not just about animal rights – it’s all civil rights, the ability to have our free speech and to say what we feel about a certain business or activity without worrying that we’re going to be slapped in jail, and this is such a precious right here in the United States and to see that it’s being, kind of, covertly whittled away from us is very scary. It’s, like the title of your book, “Green is the New Red Scare,” there’s so much about it that reminds me of the McCarthy era and the red scare – history repeating itself.
Will Potter: What people also need to be aware of is that what’s happening in the US is not only a threat to other social justice movements here and consumers here in the states, but it’s, in some ways, becoming a model for what’s happening in other countries. For instance, in Australia right now, this ag-gag legislation that I talked about, that originated in the United States, silence and whistle blowers and investigators who expose horrific animal cruelty, is now showing up in Australia with the industry there specifically saying, “We want what the United States has. We want the protections that corporations have in the US.” When I was in Spain recently for the release of the translation of my book, I was talking to activists there, and all of the same tactics are appearing, and some cases, they’re being directly modeled on what has happened in the United States against the environmentalists and animal rights activists, but in some cases it has just been more of a loose evolution as these tactics take hold. They’re naturally exported to wherever these industries need to protect their profits. And it’s just – I think it shows how connected we are in the struggle right now. People are really looking at what’s taking place in the United States a lot more than many of us realize, and activists around the world know about ag-gag laws. They know about the animal enterprise terrorism act. They know about all this and they are very concerned about it being exported to their countries as well.
Caryn Hartglass: Now, what’s happened with the ALF and the ELF, the Animal Liberation Front and the Earth Liberation Front?
Will Potter: Yea, in a lot of ways, after that round of prosecutions in the early 2000s, or the arrests around that time, a lot of these actions by illegal underground groups have tapered off. It’s not clear if that’s a result of the prosecutions, of the FBI labeling, or if it’s just a natural evolution of the social movements, because this crackdown has taken place. We really have an unprecedented level of support for environmental issues and animal protection issues, and we feel that everywhere now – veganism being discussed by Ellen Degenerous and Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey, and national headlines constantly. Environmental issues – everyone says they’re an environmentalist, but they’ve not actually followed through with it. I think we’re just seeing a cultural change that in some ways is making activists kind of rethink a lot these tactics and what’s the most appropriate way to move forward. I mean these movements are still alive and thriving, so will this obedience, excuse me, taking place against Keystone XL Pipeline, on a national scale and investigations of factory farms. It’s just a – the tactics are kind of evolving and changing, I think.
Caryn Hartglass: You mentioned that you’re speaking at universities and in different venues internationally. I’m just wondering – university students are going to be interested in this sort of thing, but where is the mainstream media in response to the book that you’ve written and the information that you’re putting out?
Will Potter: Well you know, I’ve been working on these issues quite a while now, and there’s certainly been a change, but it’s been a slow one. I think the mainstream press bears a lot of responsibility for these dangerous policies by not raising a critical voice of how that language of terrorism was exploited. And now as time goes by and by, especially with the release of the book, the support from the mainstream press has been overwhelming. I mean, there was a front-page article in Washington Post about the issue – about my work, about the issues I focus on – coverage in Rolling Stone and Mother Jones and all the top media outlets in the country and Los Angeles Times. I think it’s beginning to change, I mean there’s certainly, it’s just a drop in the bucket of…the issues we’re bombarded with everyday there hasn’t been nearly enough attention on this, but I think it’s changing quite a bit. It’s been really inspiring to me to see how much has changed, even in the last couple of years.
Caryn Hartglass: Now where are the different animal and environmental organizations on speaking out against the wrongdoings of these laws, or are they cowering?
Will Potter: There certainly was a lot of cowering, I mean there’s no doubt about that, for a long time. When the animal enterprise terrorism act was being approved by congress in 2006, it was a real struggle to find any groups that were willing to be out front speaking out about it. Now, for instance, just last year, I’ve spoken at Georgetown law school, and it was at a panel discussion with representation present from the American Civil Liberties Union, workers rights groups, unions, the ASPCA, whistle blowers, a government accountability project, Compassion Over Killing, I mean, thinking of it is just incredible, and you – more often than not, these groups are either ignoring each other or attacking each other, and frankly, in between the labor groups and the environmental groups, and now they’re starting to be on the same page, and to see groups like the Humane Society and ASPCA out front fighting with issues is a real positive development.
Caryn Hartglass: Well, with any of these issues, it’s important that groups that align on something similar work together and not fight between the things they disagree on, because we’re all small and not as powerful and not as financially strong as corporations and the organizations that are trying to weaken any message that we have. We need to cooperate. It’s a hard thing for people to do, cooperate.
Will Potter: It is, and I always try to remind people that whatever differences we see between each other and within the animal protection movement or with other social activists, it’s just infinitely small compared to the differences and priorities and interests between us and these industries. They’re us against some of the most powerful and wealthiest corporations on the planet that are pushing us with these types of tactics. And it really is – it’s incredible how we can get wrapped up in smaller differences between us rather than the enormous differences that really can define our actions and how we think about these issues.
Caryn Hartglass: Yup, I really feel strongly about that. My favorite title in your book, the chapter title is Chapter 6, “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been a Vegetarian?” It’s clever, humorous, and it’s scary, because I can see that happening.
Will Potter: Well that’s how…I was obviously joking with that, but that’s how I felt when I was testifying before Congress about this law also, I was thinking back to all these hearings throughout US history that have defined a lot of these eras, and I was just wondering, are they going to know that I’m vegetarian? Am I going to be questioned about that? I mean, are they – what is the scope of how I’m going to be interrogated about this law? And I was never asked that, of course, but the tenor of the hearing, I think was certainly on par with what I had feared. I mean, it was Democrats and Republicans both aligning themselves with these industries and demonizing anyone who would dare speak out against them, or align themselves with animal protection groups.
Caryn Hartglass: Well, if they’re using phrases like “inspirationally significant” to prove a cause or prove someone’s belief that something wrong has been done, anything can happen after that.
Will Potter: Absolutely.
Caryn Hartglass: Yes, very scary. Okay, it’s 2014, what are the hot issues today? Are any particular – are any people particularly in trouble that we should know about or try to do something about?
Will Potter: I think there are really two things I would want everyone listening to this to be really aware of and I hope they speak out against. One is these ag-gag laws are surfacing again. Last year was a huge victory, they were defeated in every single state where they were introduced, and now they are popping up all over again. It looks like the one in New Hampshire has been shut down, this bill in Idaho is moving forward, it just passed the Senate. If you’re in Arizona, there is an ag-gag bill that’s been introduced and I encourage people to find out about these and encourage your lawmakers about how you feel because they are really a dangerous attack on whistle blowers in an attempt to keep consumers in the dark. And the other thing I think everyone should know about is with these new environmental campaigns. I think everyone’s heard of the Keystone Pipeline and certainly about fracking right now. Fracking’s been in the news constantly. Well, these new bills – some of them are so broad that they target anyone who’s exposing what happens to most industries as well. I recently wrote about a case in Oklahoma where two young activists went into a corporate headquarters of a building, of a company that’s involved in all of this – involved in fracking, in keystone pipeline development, and they simply unrolled this enormous banner, a hand painted banner in protest, and as they did that, some glitter fell off of the banner onto the floor. And then they walked out and they even apologized – one of the activists apologized to the custodian and said, “I’m sorry. We didn’t mean to make a mess. We didn’t know some glitter was going to fall off of this.” When they got outside, they were arrested. They were later informed that they were being prosecuted for a terrorism hoax. Well, the police are saying, they didn’t know if the glitter was actually glitter, or if it was a chemical weapon that was being released. And I know something like this can sound so completely absurd or even just hilarious or just comical that stuff like this was going on. And we rolled our eyes and think, Oh this is just Keystone cops kind of stuff. But these activists are facing ten years in prison right now. I mean, these things are real, and no matter how absurd or even – some people hear these things and think it sounds very conspiracy theory. There’s no element of that at all. This is all happening right in front of our eyes, and some people – their lives are on the line. I hope people learn about this and speak out and stand behind these activists, these non-violent protestors through them and ten years of prison.
Caryn Hartglass: Do you know where we could go to find out more about them?
Will Potter: Sure, if you could go to my website, greenisthenewred.com, that’s just all one word, greenisthenewred.com, and there on the homepage is an article about the Oklahoma case, and it also has some information about how you can get involved in ag-gag issues as well.
Caryn Hartglass: The ag-gag issue – now, right now, the states are deciding whether they want to pursue something like that or have one, but ultimately, we may need to go to the Supreme Court and have them shoot down all the ag-gag laws. Do you see something like that happening?
Will Potter: It’s really hard to say, I mean the Supreme Court is such a lengthy fight, and also it’s so up in the air of what cases are ever considered. What I can’t say right now is, there’s a legal challenge in Utah, the first challenge of its kind against any ag-gag law, and I am very proud to be a part of it as a protest challenging the constitutionality of this legislation. I’m involved as a journalist, like I said it puts my work directly at risk. And also involved are groups like PETA, the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals, and also a professor, a university professor, from Texas, a former undercover investigator, and hoping that it’ll not only strike down that law, but set a legal precedent of how we can begin fighting back against the others as well. So that work is still being done – it is in the early stages of the lawsuit right now, but fingers are crossed.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, well Will Potter, you’re doing some good work.
Will Potter: Well, thanks so much for talking to me about this and helping raise awareness, I really appreciate it.
Caryn Hartglass: Yea, I just want to say that I encourage people reading Green is the New Red, not only is it like a thriller, kind of fun to read, and I hope to see a movie about it, but I think you can appreciate how important our laws are and what good they can do and what damage they can do, and it’s not just about protecting people who are innocent, it’s also about protecting people who may not be innocent, but are giving them the appropriate punishment and not something really extreme.
Will Potter: If there’s one message to leave with everyone today who’s listening to this is that the real test of the health of a democracy and the health of our civil liberties is not whether we’re out there defending all the people that we agree with, or defending all the issues we agree with, but whether or not we have the courage to speak up when people that we might not be 100% in line with are being targeted and are facing this type of oppression. So, no matter however you feel about animal rights activists or specific campaign that some people have been involved with and – these type of tactics are putting all of our rights at risk, and I hope that motivates people to speak up and to fight back as this legislation is being introduced.
Caryn Hartglass: It does take a lot of courage, and I don’t want to sound negative, but it’s something that people aren’t likely to do unless they are personally involved, or they realize how it will personally affect them. It’s really hard to connect the dots and to see that when one group is being affected, it can ultimately affect you and your beliefs.
Will Potter: You’re absolutely right, and I think that it take a lot of courage to do that, and more so, what I think is helpful in doing that is realizing that this is all happening because the social movements have been so effective, also. I mean, it’s inspiring to me to see how groups of people with very little money, very little resources are threatening some of the most powerful industries on the planet, on a really tremendous scale, to the point that they’re passing laws to shut them down, I think that’s incredible. So there’s a lot to be nervous and intimidated by, I mean I feel that everyday in my work, but it’s also quite inspiring, and I think if you think that way, that can be the motivation need to get off the fence and to realize what’s at stake here.
Caryn Hartglass: This is “inspirationally significant” again in a good way.
Will Potter: There you go. That’s what we should all aspire to be.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, thank you Will! Take care.
Will Potter: Thank you so much for talking to me. Bye.
Caryn Hartglass: Whoowhee! Well, I really was moved by this book and I really encourage you to read it, please. And then, get to work however you see fit, because we all need to be participating in making this place a better world. Shall we take a break? I’m going to take a quick break and be back in a couple of minutes, and we’ll talk some more.
Transcribed by Dorene Zhou, 6/14/2014