The Government’s 7-Step Process for Convicting Environmentalists as Terrorists

by Will Potter on February 5, 2009

in Activism & Activists' Response,Government Priorities,Terrorism Court Cases

Poster by Just Seeds Collective,

Poster by Just Seeds Collective,

Despite my deep-seated distaste for all things Baltimore (my apologies to folks in Bawlmor, but your town and I don’t seem to get along), I’ve been watching HBO’s The Wire on Netflix. The series—created by David Simon, a 13-year-veteran of the The Baltimore Sun—is structured so that each episode is a small piece in a much larger criminal investigation. It’s a fascinating, accurate, layman’s look at the step-by-step process of building a case.

The cops in The Wire are methodical. They can’t go straight after Avon Barksdale (the kingpin). They must pick off henchmen, build priors (to up the stakes), threaten heavier sentences in order to turn snitches, use snitches to tighten the screws on others, and keep going onward and upward to the top.

This made me think about the application of a similar methodology to the cases against alleged members of the Earth Liberation Front, Animal Liberation Front, and others labeled “eco-terrorists” for property crimes. [For this, I’m looking just at the property crimes cases, not pure First Amendment cases like the SHAC 7.] Based on my reporting of the “Green Scare” cases, the government’s seven-step process for turning non-violent activists into imprisoned terrorists goes something like this:

  1. Use the T-word early. As soon as there’s a crime that might be attributable to environmentalists, the government steps in and labels it terrorism. A case study of this is the recent arsons in Seattle. There was no claim of responsibility by the ELF, but the FBI rushed to label it “eco-terrorism.” Likewise, in California there were incendiary devices left at the home of animal researchers. Again, there was no claim of responsibility, but the government, the university, and even other animal groups rushed to label it “animal rights terrorism.” In short, this step is much like that Chicagoan political mantra: Label them early and label them often.
  2. Luck out. There has to be some kind of lucky break for cops to get things moving in the case. In one case, a business owner in Michigan found boxes of maps and M-80s while dumpster-diving and called the cops. In another case, a career-oriented 20-something named “Anna” infilitrated lawful protest groups. These leads aren’t enough to build a case, but they’re a start.
  3. Make an informant or “snitch.” This third step is absolutely critical to the entire process. No major investigation of ELF or ALF activity has been possible without it. The government must pick a weak link. In Michigan, it was Frank Ambrose, the environmentalist who carelessly threw out boxes of personal items. In the Operation Backfire cases, it was Jacob Ferguson, a drug addict. The government searches for a weakness and begins to tighten the screws until they turn informant.
  4. Breed more informants. The FBI then uses this information to harass and intimidate other activists. The government makes the activists feel like they have no option, no hope. Agents say that unless they cooperate, they’ll spend their lives in prison, and in prison they’ll be thrown in with the worst of the worst, the murderers, the terrorists. The government makes the activists feel like their only option is to turn on their friends.

    The catch here is that each successive informant must offer new information and new names. As a result, the government’s net grows and snares people that had little or no involvement in any crime. Some activists may be hauled before grand juries, where this “snitch farming” continues. Others may be hauled into court. (A perfect example of this is Briana Waters. Her friend Lacey Phillabaum turned informant and because Lacey was one of the last to do so, she had to name someone new—and Briana was implicated).

  5. Push a plea. The government doesn’t want to take anything to trial. It costs money. It’s could be a media circus. It reduces the chances of scoring a victory in the War on Terrorism. Instead, the government offers reduced sentences if the defendants take a plea. Prosecutors tell them it’s their only option, that all their friends and co-defendants are against them. Prosecutors tell them there is no hope, and that this is the only way out.
  6. Play the terrorism card at sentencing. That word, terrorism, is used extensively in the press throughout this process. For the most, though, it isn’t allowed into the courtroom. Once the defendants accept a plea agreement, though, prosecutors push for “terrorism enhancement” penalties. If the defendant has already accepted a plea agreement, it’s significantly harder to fight back against this label. The terrorism label has been used since day one, and now it’s official.
  7. Start the PR machine back up. The government labels the conviction and the “terrorism enhancement” a victory in the so-called War on Terrorism. Federal agents use it to prove their worth and request additional resources and support. This, in turn, leads to more surveillance, more harassment, more arrests, more snitches, and more fear. [Repeat with step one.]

There’s nothing inevitable about this process, though. The government’s methodology is formulaic, but activists can break that mold. At every step of this process, there is room for resistance (for instance, Operation Backfire defendants Daniel McGowan, Jonathan Paul, Joyanna Zacher and Nathan Block pushed for non-cooperating plea agreements somewhere near step five).

But the best defense, as the cliché goes, is a good offense. The best response is stopping this process before it begins–refusing to allow the government to initiate step one.

That means resisting this scare-mongering each and every time it appears in the press. Refusing to label non-violent property destruction as “terrorism.” And building strong communities that can support defendants each and every step of the way.

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