As part of the environmental activism movement, I could not help but share with you this great interview on Grist. I repost it below with some amendments to make for an easier read.
At a time when everyone is going green, most people are unaware that the FBI is using anti-terrorism resources to target environmentalists.
Here is a tour into an underground world of radical and not environmental activism. This is also an introduction to the shadowy figures behind the headlines. But here also is the story of how everyday people cannot speak up for what they believe in.
Like the Red Scare, this “Green Scare” is about fear and intimidation. Will Potter outlines the political, legal, and public relations strategies that threaten even acts of nonviolent civil disobedience with the label of “eco-terrorism.”PR strategies threaten even acts of nonviolent civil disobedience with the label of 'eco-terrorism'. Click To Tweet
For centuries, the arbitrary use of power by the state against dissidents has been a key threat to freedom. More recently, the concentrated wealth of corporations has emerged as a major impediment to democracy. When those two centers of power decide to come after people, not only do the individuals suffer, but freedom and democracy take a beating.
In his debut book, Green Is the New Red: An Insider’s Account of a Social Movement under Siege, independent journalist Will Potter details one such assault on freedom and democracy: the targeting of environmental activism and animal rights activists.
In recent decades, corporations whose profits depend on degrading the ecosphere started to worry that those activists posed a real threat to their operations.
Politicians and law-enforcement agencies responded with laws and tactics targeting:
- the illegal actions of some of those groups, and
- the constitutionally protected speech and association of a wider range of groups.
The fear-and-smear campaigns take their toll on the activists.
In a book that alternates between reporting and reflection, Potter details the strategy and tactics of corporations and the state. He also gives readers a feel for the human costs for the activists. In an interview, I asked Potter to explain the threat posed by these campaigns.
Q. Let’s start with what you don’t mean by the title, Green is the New Red. You say in the book that you aren’t suggesting the environmental/animal rights movements are directly analogous to the left/radical/socialist/communist movements that were targeted in the Red Scares of the 20th century in the United States. If the scope of those Red movements was wider and their level of repression much more severe, what is the title communicating?
A. Although I make clear that what’s going on now is not the same or worse than the Red Scare, these current events need to be clear within a historical context. Coordinated campaigns to target and repress dissident voices have taken place throughout U.S. history, and foremost among them is the Red Scare.Coordinated campaigns to target and repress dissident voices have taken place throughout U.S. history. Click To Tweet
For most Americans, of all political stripes, that term is synonymous with using fear to push a political agenda. It is a dark era of U.S. history where lives were ruined, and freedoms chilled, in the name of national security. Beyond those big-picture similarities, though, there are eerie parallels between the Red Scare and this Green Scare. That is in terms of the specific tactics that corporations and politicians use to instill fear and silence dissent.
Q. Whatever the size or current influence of these radical environmental activism movements, you write that they are challenging core notions of what it means to be a human being. Based on your experience as an activist and on your reporting, how do you assess these movements?
A. These movements, like all social justice movements, have diverse components. Although it has become fashionable to “go green,” the true nature of the environmental and animal rights movements goes much deeper than promoting hybrid cars and energy-saving light bulbs.
They are about more than promoting a quick fix or advocating environmentalism through consumerism.
These movements are challenging deeply held religious and cultural beliefs that the interests of human beings are always paramount. That we have the right to use the earth and other species in whatever ways we see fit, costs aside. These environmental activism movements recognize that behaving as if human beings are the only species on the planet is destructive. Their critique is more than an appeal to self-interest.Environmental activism recognizes that behaving as if human beings are the only species on the planet is destructive.Click To Tweet
It is about critically examining our relationship with the natural world, and all other species on the planet, and questioning what it means to be a human being.
Q. Do you think that is the reason those environmental activism movements are being targeted? Because people in power in government and corporations understand how fundamental that challenge is, and want to suppress it?
A. Absolutely. In fact, that’s how the threat is often described by these individuals themselves in Congressional hearings, internal corporate documents, FBI memos, Homeland Security reports, and in the media. At first I dismissed much of this as political theater — exaggerating the threat in order to justify the crackdown.
For instance, it was hard not to laugh when the CEO of Yum Foods (KFC’s parent company) testified before Congress that PETA represents the threat of a “vegetarian world.” He called them “corporate terrorists.”
But this culture war rhetoric is no longer funny when you see how it plays out in real life. PETA, and other mainstream groups like the Humane Society of the United States, are under attack. The labs are that they are “terrorists” (by corporations and politicians). Investigated by the FBI are also ongoing.
There is only one way we can explain this phenomenon.
All of it – the above ground and the underground, the mainstream and the radical – represents a cultural threat.
Q. Let’s go back to your reference to the specific tactics used, by both government and corporations, in this environmental activism campaign. What are some of the most common tactics, and what is the strategy behind them?
A. The comparison of today’s political climate to the Red Scare was particularly useful in identifying and classifying the tactics used in this campaign. The tactics, then and now, group into three main areas:
- legislative, and an
- extralegal, or scare-mongering
The courts push the limits of what constitutes “terrorism,” and hit activists with disproportionate penalties and prison sentences.
In this realm the word terrorist is used early, and used often, to skew public opinion against defendants. And that is before they ever set foot in a courtroom.
At some point these legal tactics have limitations. Hence, corporations and politicians have lobbied for new laws that go even further. Federal laws like the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, along with state-level legislation, are useful to single out activists based on their political beliefs. The intention is not only to enact new laws.
The primary purpose is to use Congressional hearings and political theater to shift cultural perceptions of these movements.
The final element is perhaps the most dangerous of them all. During the Red Scare, court cases and legislation sent people to prison. However, scare-mongering tactics (PR campaigns, press conferences, ads, reckless use of language to demonize people) leveraged the weight of fear and incarcerated many more.
The strategy behind these tactics is fragmentation.
In discussing this, I think it’s helpful to visualize social movements as having a “horizontal” and “vertical” component. The intention is to separate these movements horizontally, and create rifts between them and the broader left.
Animal rights activists and generally environmental activism supporters therefore get an image as ideological extremists. Moreover, extremists who, if they have their way, will stop you from eating meat and driving cars and having pets!
Tensions exist between these movements and the more traditional left. Yet, campaigns by corporations and politicians intend to exacerbate them.
If these movements are not seen as part of a broader social justice struggle, it is easier for other leftist and progressive groups to turn their backs on their repression.
Similarly, there is a campaign to fragment these movements vertically. Above ground, lawful groups get instructions to condemn underground groups. If they do not, they would be accomplices and therefore terrorists as well. This two-prong strategy — breaking these movements away from other social movements, and breaking the aboveground away from the underground — intensifies the repression.Lawful groups condemn underground groups. If they don't, they'd be accomplices and hence terrorists as well. Click To Tweet
Q. Whatever one thinks of the specific analyses or tactics of groups such as the Earth Liberation Front, the accelerating pace of ecological collapse suggests their call to consciousness about the larger living world is more important than ever. After your investigation into the Green Scare, what is your assessment of the likelihood the culture will listen?
A. As the scale of the ecological crisis we are facing becomes more apparent, and as the backlash against social movements that are challenging our self-destructive culture intensifies, it is difficult to not feel dark, to feel helpless. I certainly feel that way quite often. Not just because of the content of my own work, but from the near-blackout in the mainstream press. Unfortunately, I do not see any of this changing anytime soon.
As the ecological crisis accelerates, the accompanying crackdown by corporations and people in power will intensify as well. The people who have the most to lose will cling desperately to that culture as it is under threat. This includes not just CEOs but much of the overwhelmingly privileged United States and so-called First World.
After all of that, I would argue that there are reasons for hope. Through my work, and in particular through book and media tours, I have been fortunate to meet people all over the country from diverse backgrounds. What has been striking to me is that, even if people are unfamiliar with the Green Scare or the targeting of political activists, they are rarely surprised. People may not know the specifics, but they know that corporations have more power than people.People may not know the specifics, but they know that corporations have more power than people.Click To Tweet
They know the scope of ecological destruction is increasing. They know we have no choice but to change but that people in power will not change willingly. I think that so many people already feel this. I think the question is: Will we find the courage to speak up even more?
Do you agree with Potter’s opinion?