Remembering MLK the “Terrorist”

by Will Potter on January 23, 2008

in Terrorism Legislation

MLK JailIn honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, some people have gone to great lengths to prove their devotion to the legendary civil rights leader. Presidential candidates have been arguing about who best represents King’s legacy(personally and politically). Some organizations want to be associated with MLK so badly that they’re organizing MLK parades competing with other organizations. Even hard-line conservatives have jumped on the bandwagon, saying, “It is time for conservatives to lay claim to the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. King.”

You’d be hard pressed, it seems, to find anyone who would publicly associate MLK with “terrorism.” But under a new law passed by Congress called the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, King’s actions, and the tactics he advocated, are exactly that.

The law is ostensibly meant to go after underground groups like the Animal Liberation Front who commit sabotage in the name of animal rights. Calling people “terrorists” for doing things like releasing animals from fur farms is quite a stretch. But the law doesn’t stop there. It is so broad, so vague, that it also risks wrapping up mainstream, above-ground, non-violent activists as “terrorists.” Early drafts of the bill went so far as to specifically list non-violent civil disobedience as terrorism. For instance, when I testified before the House Judiciary Committee I noted that the offense section of the bill spells out prison sentences “for an offense involving exclusively a non-violent physical obstruction.” Later versions eliminated that controversial clause, but this “terrorism” law can still be used to go after the non-violent tactics of MLK and Gandhi.

Think that’s far-fetched?

Well, on the floor of the House on the day AETA passed, Representative Bobby Scott, a Democrat from Virginia and champion of the bill, acknowledged that this “terrorism” law could still target non-violent civil disobedience. (Quotes are from the Congressional record)

“… there are some who conscientiously believe that it is their duty to peacefully protest the operation of animal enterprises to the extent of engaging in civil disobedience,” he said. “If a group’s intention were to stage a sit-in or liedown or to block traffic to a targeted facility, they certainly run the risk of arrest for whatever traffic, trespass or other laws they may be breaking…

“To violate the provision of the bill, one must travel or otherwise engage in interstate activity with the intent to cause damage or loss to an animal enterprise. While the losses of profits, lab experiments or other intangible losses are included, it must be proved that such losses were specifically intended for the law to be applied.”

In other words, those “who conscientiously believe that it is their duty to peacefully protest” through civil disobedience could be labeled terrorists. But only if they intended to make a difference.

Representative Scott is considered a go-to guy in the House on civil rights and civil liberties issues.

And, as an aside, the House passed the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act just hours after a ceremony breaking ground for the new MLK memorial on the national mall. Many members of Congress weren’t present for a vote on this terrorism law because they were still at the groundbreaking ceremony, or the associated events and media interviews. In fact, only six members of Congress were in the room when the law passed unanimously by a voice vote.

So how does this happen? How can politicians wax eloquently about the virtues of non-violent civil disobedience, and praise MLK, while passing legislation that would brand him a “terrorist”?

I think a quote from Representative John Lewis of Georgia–another Democrat, and civil rights champion–may offer some insight into that. He told PBS NewsHour, “King inspired me and thousands of other Americans to get in the way. He inspired us to get in trouble. But it was good trouble; it was necessary trouble. And that’s why we honor Martin Luther King, Jr. today.”

A good trouble. A necessary trouble.

The problem is, animal rights and environmental activism aren’t seen as a “good trouble,” or a “necessary trouble.” Corporations have spent millions of dollars to label it extremism, and terrorism.

But it’s absolutely critical to remember that, at the time, MLK was not good trouble, or necessary trouble. When civil rights activists sat down at lunch counters are refused to leave until they were served, they weren’t good trouble, either. If the T-word were around back then like it is now, they probably would have been called “lunch counter terrorists.”

MLK, in fact, was a radical. There’s no mincing words about that. In his speech at Riverside Church in New York City, he railed against the “individual capitalists of the West” and called the United States “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”

“I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values,” King said. “We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

King railed against corporate interests, and valuing profits above life. Yet this new law labels people as “terrorists” in order to do exactly that–protect corporate interests, and value profits above life. And all the while, its supporters sing his praises from the mountain tops.

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