Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Green is the New Red: An Insider's Account of a Social Movement Under Siege

Book Review: Green is the New Red: An Insider’s Account of a Social Movement Under Siege  by Will Potter  (City Lights Books 2011)

This is a well written book about radical activism and so-called eco-terrorism. It focuses mostly on radical animal rights activism but also on radical environmentalism. There is some great history and analysis of radical activism. Though I do not agree with the author on many points it is usually a matter of degree. The author is a journalist interested in animal rights and the environment and friend to some of the convicted activists and he really does present some great information, arguments, and perspectives. He is very well informed and his bias is toward greater freedoms for activists but not overly so as he presents reasonable viewpoints and considers other views. Some of the book involves personal accounts of visits with activists and descriptions of court cases that the author attended.

The author shows how the terrorism scare after 911 allowed the government to clamp down more against radical activists by defining them more and more as terrorists. He makes a good case for the radical animal rights activists not being in the same league with terrorists that seek to kill people for political reasons. One could say that they are ‘property terrorists’ having committed numerous arsons. These groups such as Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and Earth Liberation Front (ELF) are the ones mainly targeted but members of other groups have been convicted and sent to prison for things like veiled incitement and harassing company employees. Greenpeace and the Sea Sheppard have shared their exploits on TV on “Whale Wars” which I have seen. They are as well referred to as eco-terrorists. Certainly their methods are controversial and disrupting, but in their case, towards what are basically illegal whaling practices that are not being investigated or enforced.

A major theme of this book is how terms are defined: terrorism, non-violence, incitement – and how the legal definitions affect people. The author mentions the three volume work – The Politics of Non-violent Action – by Gene Sharp. Sharp gives a spectrum from Non-violence to Violence. At one end is “non-violent resistance and direct action” and at the other extreme is “physical violence against persons to inflict injury or death...” At question is where acts of sabotage and property damage and destruction fall on this spectrum. Certainly they are more akin to violence than to non-violence. Although the author notes that certain types of property destruction directed specifically at the property of perpetrators of perceived violence to animals (for instance), he does not really address adequately the uncertainty this may cause in the general populace who may be wondering what will happen next and how violent – or to what extremes are they willing to go? It is not enough to say – “oh they are just burning buildings, or blowing up labs, or SUVs to prove a point. They are not trying to hurt anyone.” The fact is no one knows whether they will hurt someone either purposely or accidently, whether through consensus or a renegade decision from someone willing to go further than the rest. While it is important to define terrorism and to distinguish between people whose goals are to kill humans for political reasons and those who just want to cause property damage and weaken institutions perceived as immoral – The public and the laws need to adequately protect against both. Although the ultra radical animal rights activists have been effective at weakening certain testing labs and corporations – I think overall they have weakened the whole animal rights agenda by co-opting the movement and marginalizing it. Now people interested in animal rights are marginalized as extremists because of them. Even groups like PETA who have done some good work in whistle-blowing and exposing disgusting practices have opted to flaunt footage and be generally aggressive (though not always) which also has helped to keep animal rights out of the mainstream.

Potter gives some great history of domestic terrorism – the Oklahoma City bombing, abortion clinic bombings, the Waco cult, militias, tax protestors, white separatists groups, Ku Klux Klan, and animal rights actions. He makes the observation that right-wing terrorism has been ignored in favor of clamping down specifically on animal rights and radical environmental activists which are perceived as left-wing. This may be the case and perhaps was especially so during the Bush years. Some Homeland Security officials even said that Timothy McVeigh was not a terrorist! I think he is suggesting that some want to define terrorism more as an anti-government stance than as a pro-violence group. Several of these other groups have definitely advocated and practiced violence against humans and murder. The animal rights groups and radical environmental groups have not. They have done a significant amount of arson and property destruction but have carefully avoided violence against humans yet they have been targeted much more aggressively by the government. This is certainly of note but I think that perhaps the reason that this is so is that they are more vocal, more organized, and act as a radicalized form of a much larger movement that is mainstream for the most part. For these reasons they may be easier to investigate by the gov. Much of the radical animal and earth rights groups have opted for such controversial acts as publically humiliating corporate leaders with pies in the face. PETA has used this as well. Earth First has advocated ‘tree spiking’ which could result in injury to loggers though the group has been split over the practice and no one has actually been hurt by the process.

Rachel Carson’s book  - Silent Spring – from 1962, is widely credited as sparking the modern environmental movement. Other philosophical precursors were of course the 19th century transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau and the conservationist John Muir who founded the Sierra Club. The first Earth Day was in 1970 and has by now gone way mainstream. This time period saw the first anonymous radical environmentalists targeting polluters. “Ecotage” was practiced, techniques were shared, and cult followings developed. Not all were left wing. Increased radicalization occurred in the 1980s. Greenpeace became known for nonviolent direct action. The much more radicalized ALF and ELF became well established in the UK and established clandestine training camps and new cells in the US. By 1987 the phrase “domestic terrorism” was used to label animal rights crimes and the term “eco-terrorist” was introduced to a wider audience. There is also documented violence and disproportional response to protestors by police. We have seen this occasionally as well in the recent Occupy Wall Street protests. Unfortunately for the most radical activists, the September 11 tragedy opened the gates for the government to crack down further on them. State and local homeland security groups with new money infused to them were also trained to respond to the “eco-Al Qaeda.” The Patriot Act helped out with the ability of the gov to practice domestic spying. These activities resulted in more arrests of these more radical of activists although as the author points out this did not significantly reduce incidences of radical actions – at least in the short term. The threat of harsher sentences through re-defining property destruction as terrorism brought out more informants. The author makes comparisons to the “red scare’ of the 1950s where people were singled out as ‘communist sympathizers’ and so-called “red squads” were convened to spy on citizens. The money was available to homeland security groups to support such efforts and so there certainly were some similarities but again the author does not address the massive property damage caused by the radicals. The communist sympathizers were an imagined enemy and certainly some reputations were damaged. In contrast the radical animal and earth rights groups caused millions of dollars in damage and multiple arsons, bombings, break-ins, and harassing stalkings of corporations and their affiliates. I certainly would not dispute that the homeland security Barney Fifes would not be discerning enough to know a violent criminal from just a crafty radical one but perhaps therein lies an issue. Where does one draw the line?  Like it or not these people have been lumped in with terrorists and this has been an unexpected boon to the corporations and institutions that they are fighting against. If animal rights and environmental justice would go more mainstream then the corps would be forced to change. If they can be portrayed as extremists then the goals of the whole movement are weakened and any gains that they temporarily made – and they did manage to significantly weaken and nearly shut down some animal testing labs – are moot. I think it is unfortunate that the extremism has focused the issues on the violence and how to deal with the extremists rather than the unnecessary violence being perpetrated on animals and the environment. My own opinion is that there should be a third party ethical committee from different ideological perspectives that reviews each proposed animal experiment – and provides guidelines as to how (or how not) to proceed. I think we should also have an Animal Protection Agency (APA) like the EPA that reviews, guides, and enforces.  

The author gives details of various animal rights sabotage actions and cases after the activists were apprehended. He gives great details into the case against – Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty – or SHAC – which began in the UK and expanded into the US in protest of animal testing by – Huntingdon Life Sciences - for cosmetics and pharmaceuticals deemed to be cruel and beyond any medical or health necessity. SHAC targeted money and sought to expose those who financed and affiliated with the lab. The lab was basically on the run and hide from the crafty activists. Although SHAC did not participate in illegal activist actions they supported them vocally. In 1992 the – Animal Enterprise Protection Act – was passed specifically to deal with sabotage against animal enterprises. At the time, many animals, mostly minks, were being releases from fur farms by activists. SHAC was accused of targeting individuals – or exposing them and making them known – so that ALF could target them. Even though I agree that this is at least borderline criminal – some of these people received prison sentences longer than murderers – especially the ones convicted after the – Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act – which apparently has vague language that fails to adequately protect First Amendment Rights – as several of the terrorism-related bills seem to share. The author was actually a part of the deliberations for this bill – expressing its inadequacies and First Amendment problems. He also exposes the lobbying groups like ALEC who draft legislation and the sneaky nature of congressional process that slips bills in without due debate.

Animal experimentation companies and radical animal rights activists have had wars of words, of media, and of manipulation of public opinion. But through the war rhetoric one does not see the clear mistreatment of animals – though in some respects the activists have brought that to the public eye – especially through whistle-blowing and clandestine recordings of animal abuse. Such recordings have shown abuse that may well be routine among people who show poor morality. Most sensible people would find such acts repugnant – yet the public’s focus is shifted to the radical acts of the activists which is where these companies want it. The activists may have weakened these companies in the short term but they weakened the nobility of their cause in the long term. The SHAC people were convicted and sent to prison for having ‘shared beliefs’ with the ALF arsonists but also for indirectly aiding them.

The author mentions hotbed areas for animal rights activism and anarchy such as the Pacific Northwest – around Eugene Oregon – near old-growth forests and places where there are many vegans and vegetarians. These people helped (and some wreaked havoc) in the ‘battle for Seattle’ in the 90’s during the anti-globalism protests of the G8 Summit.

The author paints pictures of the lives of some of the activists – their beliefs, their passions, their romances. Some activists became cultural outlaw-heroes and inspired other activists with daring acts. Prison and young people not criminally-minded going to prison is another subject discussed. Some were actually put in high-security terrorist compounds with significant solitary confinement and severe limitation of privileges due to their association with terrorism. They were housed with other terrorists from groups well known to be interested in killing Americans.

Activists and non-profit groups are far less funded than corporations in terms of lobbying power and, of course, lobby reform is a big issue these days as people accuse the government of serving the interests of corporations over the interests of the people. Strangely the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act includes causing loss of profits of these corporations under the terrorism umbrella so technically the law could be applied in such circumstances and people freeing animals from labs or harassing corporations through their websites or tracing their financing could be tried as terrorists – though I doubt that will actually happen. The author points out the roles of such orgs as the National Lawyers Guild – who often advocates for activists and arrested protestors and the ACLU who surprisingly stayed silent during this bill – perhaps as the author suggests – they had more important immediate concerns or they thought that things could end up worse. The main problem with the bill according to the National Lawyers Guild is that it leaves it open enough to label activists as terrorists. The author notes that the government was watching and spying on Dr. King during the Civil Rights campaigns and basically treated him like a terrorist in some ways though later he became an official American icon and hero. The author also notes the frivolity of Congressional members – very few showing up for the actual enacting of this important law while paying far more attention to congratulating the winners of the World Series. After the law was enacted in December 2006 there were several responses from the underground radical animal rights groups to show that they were not deterred. Many have claimed that the attacks increased after the law was enacted:

“But are attacks actually increasing? Or are both sides spinning numbers for different purposes, one to inspire radical activists, the other to show the continued threat.”

Many people do not know that there are frivolous animal testing experiments going on  such as one funded by Phillip Morris to inject liquid nicotine into monkeys, then kill them, then cut open and examine their brains. If there was an ethics committee – certainly it would have rejected such experiments as this. There may be animal testing that has or will result in positive benefits for humans and even for animals – sometimes the morality of it can be a gray area – but testing cosmetics and dangerous chemicals is quite obviously unnecessary and cruel without leading to any health or social value. If we are to be moral as a species we need to address such things. Gandhi suggested that the enlightenment of a society can be gauged in how it treats its animals. The Dalai Lama finds these issues to be very important as well. Factory farms, frivolous testing labs, slaughterhouses, fur farms, puppy mills, hunt only for sport, and even Amish animal care practices – quite obviously torture animals. This should be unacceptable to any moral and reasonable human and we should boycott and speak out against these activities. These people should be shamed, but legally so. The author notes a case where an exotic pet store owner set fire to his store, killing all the animals. He scrawled animal rights activist graffiti in an attempt to frame them. For this he got less time than the animal rights activists who did arson without killing any animals or attempting fraud and defamation. Farm groups have complained that people wanting improved animal welfare standards are extremists. This is a shame as how anyone can see increased kindness and moral duty as extreme is beyond me. People need to be taught, to be convinced, that all life is precious, and should not be casually disregarded – not by burning down labs or blowing shit up – but through dialogue and bringing up such issues. Unfortunately these issues often divide people. As a vegetarian I can say that some people take offense to it though it is gradually becoming more mainstream. But if one looks at it logically and scientifically it is very sensible, sustainable, kind, and intelligent – so there is really nothing to take offense to. Our fellow humans need to be re-educated as the hand-me-down moral tradition of their ancestors is by-the-by not acceptable (as regards treatment of animals). Some animal experimenters have even advocated that simple acts like boycotting should fall under the Animal Enterprise Protection Act as they can erode our culture! This shows the deeply entrenched level of ignorance and would-be oppressive power of people that actually have education and money. The key part of their argument is that the lives of animals do not matter – especially compared to humans. They suggest that animal rights activists see animals as more important than humans and that is basically absurd. These philosophical ideas basically stem from the Judeo-Christian notions that animals do not have souls and are alive to be subservient to the needs of man. Apparently there has been quite a bit of resistance to cries for better animal welfare in the US. Now anyone who opposes mistreatment of animals can be in theory labeled a terrorist. So yes – extremist tactics have backfired – although common sense and basic human compassion should be able to eventually prevail in these matters – one would think. The author notes that culture wars of this type are often sorted out later as the society realizes what the logical and most beneficial course of action will be:

“We, as a culture, have created a mythology of repression and resistance. In history books, injustice is always so easily recognizable, social struggles are buffed to a Hollywood sheen so that the characteristics are either pure good or pure evil and the necessary response is equally straightforward. But at the time? At the time it’s not always that easy to see.”

As for me – I believe in the rights of animals, of all beings, to be free of unnecessary abuse from humans who should know better. I think we are failing miserably in this regard. I am not an activist, in fact, activists tend to annoy me – though I am in agreement with the activists ideals – just not the methods. My ‘activism’ is more of a one-on-one thing and a show by example thing – and perhaps it is far less effective – but at least it is not damaging. Actually – I spent more time than usual during this review reflecting my own ideas into the mix – ideas which I have thought much about.

This was a great book to read and I learned quite a bit

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