Coping With Repression: The Chilling Effect of “Eco-terrorism” Rhetoric

by Will Potter on August 15, 2006

in Activism & Activists' Response

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“Coping With Repression”
Delivered by Will Potter at the national animal rights conference
August 11, 2006
11 a.m.

Good morning. My name is Will Potter. I’m a reporter and I focus on how the War on Terrorism has affected civil liberties, and specifically I focus on the Green Scare, and the push by corporations and politicians to label activists as “eco-terrorists.”

I know this workshop has a pretty menacing title. It might make you think of boot-on-the-throat kind of repression. Riot cops kicking down doors. Sweeping roundups of activists. Prison.

And as you know, that’s all taking place. And it has been for a very long time.

But the point of this workshop isn’t to convince you to buy heavy-duty metal doors, hunker down, and get ready for the SWAT team. There’s a good chance you might never experience that type of repression. But, I’m going to have to be the bearer of bad news and say that doesn’t mean you don’t have cause for concern.

Today I want to talk a bit about dealing with other forms of repression, forms of repression that sometimes are overshadowed by the heavier handed tactics.

Has anyone heard heard of the term “chilling effect”? It’s lawyer talk you’d normally see in court documents and legal briefs. It’s usually referring to legislation or court decisions that are so vague, so overly broad, that they make people hesitant to exercise their rights.

I don’t know who first used the term, but the first reference I’ve found is in a decision written by William Brennan in a case called Lamont v. Postmaster General. There was a federal law that said anyone receiving communist propaganda in the mail had to specifically authorize the delivery of each piece of mail.

The law didn’t say it was illegal to send or receive communist propaganda. It just said you had to authorize it. But that has the same effect, doesn’t it? You’d have to be a real nut job to voluntarily put your name on a list of folks sending commie propaganda during the Red Scare. I mean we’re talking clueless, or fearless, or a little of both. So people didn’t do it. That’s a chilling effect.

The law didn’t take away people’s rights, but it chilled them. It made reasonable, everyday people afraid to use their basic rights.

Now let’s switch scares here, going from the Red Scare to the Green Scare. By the Green Scare I mean this post-9/11 crackdown on activists, particularly the animal rights and environmental movements.

Cops may not be raiding the homes of every animal activist. But when mainstream environmental activists are rounded up as part of “Operation Backfire” and charged with arson, you start to wonder if you’ll get hit with outlandish charges for sticking your neck out too far, for being seen as a “leader.” And when nonviolent activists like Adam Durand get 180 days in jail, plus $1,500 in fines, plus a year of probation, plus 100 hours of community service, all for investigating factory farms, you start to wonder if you’ll get the same, or worse, for investigating cruelty. This stuff adds up.

Through my reporting I’ve seen that the most pervasive chilling effect, though, by far, is caused by all the terrorism rhetoric. Domestic terrorism. Eco-terrorism. Animal right terrorism. You’ve heard all these terms.

At first the animal rights and environmental movements kind of laughed them off. Like they’re a goofy PR stunt. But since 9/11, industry groups and politicians have kicked things up a few notches, and used the T-word every chance they get. The term “eco-terrorism” is sticking, and it’s working its way into everyday vocabulary, particularly in the press.

The word terrorist is becoming a catch-all for the enemy of the hour, much like the word communist was during the Red Scare. It didn’t matter if you were a communist, only if you were branded one. The same goes for the T-word. The environmental activists rounded up in Operation Backfire were labeled “eco-terrorists” before they even made it through central booking. And the SHAC 7, a group of activists convicted for running a controversial website, were labeled terrorists before they even stood trial. These activists are labeled by the FBI as the number one domestic terrorist threat, above Al-Qaeda and right-wing groups that have actually murdered people.

On top of all this, there’s legislation now pending in Congress called the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. It expands the law used to prosecute the SHAC7, and takes things from bad to worse. It risks wrapping up any action that hurt the profits of an animal enterprise, including non-violent civil disobedience, whistleblowing and undercover investigations, as “animal enterprise terrorism.”

For the most part all this terrorist rhetoric has been used against underground groups, but the new McCarthyists are getting bolder and bolder. They’re going so far as to label the recent children’s move, Hoot, “soft-core eco-terrorism” because it shows kids saving an endangered owl from developers. The crimes of those teenage terrorists included putting reptiles in portable toilets.

So when a reasonable person sees all this going on, the arrests, the media smear campaigns, the legislation, they have good reason to think that they should watch their butt. That’s a chilling effect. Animal rights activism hasn’t been outlawed, just like communist organizing wasn’t outlawed, but that doesn’t mean people’s basic rights aren’t being violated.

The repression we’re seeing now may mimic many of the tactics of the Red Scare, but our response cannot. Witch hunts will test the backbone of today’s social movements, just as they did 60 years ago. But it’s not enough to cowardly distance ourselves from the “eco-terrorists,” as many did during the Red Scare. Condemning underground activists, or anyone charged with illegal actions, won’t get you off the hook. Naming names and making loyalty oaths didn’t protect activists then, and it won’t protect activists now.

At the same time, activists can’t just focus on their work, and wait for this to pass over. It won’t. Too many activists, particularly in the grassroots, act like home raids and FBI harassment are a badge of honor: scene points. And too many activists act as if it’s selfish to worry about our civil liberties, because it takes time and effort away from the animals.

But it’s ok to be afraid. And it’s ok to say so, to other activists, and to the general public. It doesn’t mean you’re weak, it means you’re paying attention.

The only way we’re going to get through this is by coming out and confronting it head on. That means working with anti-abortion activists and others that fear they may be the next target of this scare-mongering. That means reaching out to everyday folks and telling them that labeling activists as terrorists wastes valuable anti-terrorism resources. That means building strong communities of activists who know their rights, know how they’re threatened, and know what’s at stake if we acquiesce.

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