I’ve heard that question over and over again. It usually comes in the form of a soundbite from someone affiliated with a corporation, industry or government agency that is attempting to smear lawful activists as “terrorists.”
Their reasoning goes something like this: If you aren’t doing anything wrong, you have no reason to hide your face. If you are hiding your face, it’s an admission of criminal activity. Therefore, wearing a mask justifies rounding up lawful activists as “terrorists.”
That’s exactly what happened in the recent arrests of four activists on Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act charges in California. The FBI argues that activists “wearing bandanas to hide their faces” were intimidating, and that this therefore amounted to a campaign of terror.
To those not familiar with grassroots activism, that might seem like a pretty reasonable point. Masks are generally associated with bandits, ninjas and Hamburgler, all of which are quite intimidating. So, why would someone want to cover their face at a protest?
- Spying. The FBI and Joint Terrorism Task Forces routinely spy on lawful, above-ground activists. For instance, the ACLU exposed FBI agents spying on animal rights activists who were leafleting outside of HoneyBaked Hams. And corporations have been tracking who activists are dating.
- Blacklists. Government “watchlists” have millions of names. Recently in Maryland, it was exposed that law enforcement kept terrorist files on environmentalists, antiwar activists, and nuns.
- Grand jury witch hunts. Vocal, public activists are routinely hauled before grand juries in political witch hunts, and forced to testify about their political beliefs and political associations. If they refuse, they face jail time.
- Infiltration. The government has been using paid informants and provacateurs to keep tabs on lawful protest movements. The recent case of the RNC 8 is a good example, and even more disturbing is “Anna,” the FBI informant who befriended activists and entrapped them.
- Legal attacks. FBI agents have shown their incompetence in attempts to track down underground members of the Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front. There have been arrests, but those crimes overwhelmingly remain unsolved. Instead, law enforcement has been cracking down on the public faces of those movements and labeling them “eco-terrorists.” A good example of that is the SHAC 7 case.
In this political climate, many activists have told me they face a difficult decision. If they take to the streets and protest on a controversial campaign (especially a campaign that has involved both legal and illegal tactics), they risk this surveillance, harassment and intimidation.
If they don’t take to the streets, they are compromising their beliefs and remaining silent about the things that matter.
For many, a solution has been to continue protesting on these campaigns, but with masks covering their faces. It clearly isn’t always the best solution. It can alienate and isolate everyday people who might otherwise be open to the message of the protest.
It clearly infuriates the feds that activists want to protect their identities while continuing to advocate for what they believe. A Joint Terrorism Task Force has even gone so far as to arrest an animal rights activist on felony charges for wearing a mask at a protest.
It would be a mistake, though, to blindly buy the FBI rhetoric. Wearing a mask may or may not best campaign decision for activists. But wearing a mask doesn’t mean activists are guilty, or that they are “terrorists.” For many activists, it simply means they don’t trust FBI agents and corporations. The developments of the last few days have shown they have good reason to feel that way.