Separating the Green From the Scare
A Panel Presentation for the Vermont Law School Symposium “Examining Our Priorities: The Relationship Between National Security and Other Fundamental Values” (17 Oct. 2008).
Panel summary by Lee Hall, legal director for Friends of Animals
Just a few days had passed since the peak of leaf season in New England. The trees and rivers are glorious to see from the window of the Vermonter, a daily Amtrak train which moves slowly along an old track connecting DC to northern Vermont. Priscilla Feral and I alighted at White River Junction; then it was off to Vermont Law School for the symposium. Environmentalism was a key subject, of course — for Vermont Law School’s environmental curriculum is consistently deemed one of the two best in the United States.
Our panel addressed ecological and animal advocacy at the intersection of national security; it was called The Threat of Unpopular Ideas. I was invited to speak on this panel, along with lawyer Odette Wilkins, whose presentation comprised a review of the language of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act of 2006, and independent blogger Will Potter, who claimed that direct action was “a term coined by Martin Luther King to directly intervene when you see an injustice taking place” — that is, those who “go out in the middle of the night in black masks and release animals from fur farms; they burn SUVs, they break windows, they glue locks, they take animals out of laboratories” but “by the admission of the FBI they’ve never murdered anyone; they’ve never harmed anyone, even in their most extreme action of arson, which is a very serious and dangerous property crime.”
Potter further stated that animal and environmental activists have been singled out by anti-terror statues, and that groups such as Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) have been subjected to extra-legal fear-mongering parallel to witch hunts.
The topic of my contribution was Disaggregating the Scare From the Greens.
We need to separate what’s threatening from what’s radical, because radical (root-level) change means bringing society beyond might-makes-right, beyond getting things done through coercion.
Really, isn’t it strange that we should come to think of reverence for life, world peace, or serious concern for the Earth that sustains us as “unpopular ideas”? What we’d really appear to be saying is the methods used, condoned or promoted by certain people are unpopular.
The term “green scare” is most frequently invoked in connection with Operation Backfire — a series of federal prosecutions in late 2005 and into 2006, involving arsons. Peace or ecological awareness was not on trial there. Few people would deem an act of fire-starting conducive to reverence for life, peace, or serious concern for the earth. Notably, FBI agent provocateurs were involved in every Operation Backfire case.
That’s not the same thing as civil disobedience. I discussed a case involving Greenpeace unfurling a banner to protest mahogany forest destruction — a case unfairly turned (by John Ashcroft) into a federal criminal case. The other law enforcement phenomenon is the turning of criminal cases into “terrorist” prosecutions.
We are not living in generous legal times, I stated. Our current government is engaged in a pattern of undermining vital principles, such as the right of association. This can prompt a view that the government must in turn be opposed by forcible resistance. But coercive, us-against-them tactics can make even progressives uncomfortable and hesitant to defend those who use them. More important still, they contradict the principles of animal rights.
Reasonable observers may look at the federal government’s ruthless policing of activists as protection of profits or social control under the guise of national security. My co-panelist Will Potter went so far as to call the tension between coercive activists and the government a “cultural war” over “the values they hold”; but that argument only goes so far. Does the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) of 2006 have anything to do with a cultural war of values?
Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) rightly opposed AETA, urging Congress “to look at the claims of people who are sincere advocates of animal rights.” But can sincere advocates of animal rights be heard over the din? The mission of one high-profile activist initiative, Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (prosecuted under AETA’s predecessor, the Animal Enterprise Protection Act), is not to make animal-rights claims. As Will Potter admits, the activists project their point through a complaint over a lab worker who punched puppies in the face (hardly an animal-rights point; after all, the labs themselves forbid that).
Over the past decade, SHAC has attempted to close a particular business which has violated animal-handling laws. SHAC isn’t involved in genuine animal-rights education — to its supporters or lawmakers or the public. Few, as yet, are familiar with the actual reason the word “vegan” was created: a culture without subjugation and killing would be the first in our history to truly deserve to be called a civilization.
When vivisection protesters set a UCLA van afire, and a spokesperson for “animal liberation” connects these acts with “a movement throughout the nation and the world to stop primate experimentation, as well as give primates some legal rights to bodily protection” (as happened just last month), whose values are being warred upon? Arguably, those of advocates for peaceable, radical social change, who never consented to have their values connected with burning vans.
When protesters themselves mix legal and illegal activities in their releases, apparently endorsing them all, they can fairly claim free-speech rights; the U.S. Supreme Court has held for decades that mere advocacy of illegal activity — even advocacy of violence — is entitled to the protection of the First Amendment. That said, I asked — in a protective view of the (usually young) people who could potentially be locked up in these cases — whether such a mix buttresses law enforcement’s position that some people cloak dangerous aggression with free-speech claims.Potter’s prepared remarks seemed to assume that future lawyers and activists would hold precisely the same views (suggesting a lack of awareness that acceptance of a client’s views is not expected of criminal or civil-rights lawyers):
What makes you all, the attorneys in this room, the future attorneys in this room a true threat worthy to be put in State Department PowerPoint presentations? I think hopefully, in a couple years after all of this stupid green scare, people can come out of it and maybe there’ll be a presentation like this. And I hope they’ll never confront the protesters because they educate themselves about laws with animals and vegetarian matters and they fought back. They know how to resist grand juries, they know that their friends and families will raise hell if they are ever rounded up and held without charge, or held and charged. They’ll never confront the protesters because they know all social movements throughout history, including Martin Luther King were terrorists, were targeted, surveilled, harassed, went to prison…And I hope they’ll never confront the protesters because they won’t condemn other activists, they won’t name names, they won’t turn on each other, they won’t pledge loyalty oaths to certain tactics or certain beliefs, they won’t snitch; and — I believe most dangerously — they won’t stop.
Does this perspective genuinely value dissent? Or does it, on some level, attempt to squelch it? In a political climate in which critical thinking is especially needed, are some in the ostensibly progressive communities quashing dissent themselves?
My rebuttal to Potter’s assertion is simply this: Lawyers who are also animal-rights theorists do have a special (but completely different) responsibility: to inform potential activists that the theory for which they claim to act, seen in its best light, is part of the tradition of conscientious objection. Animal-rights theory broadens the idea of conscientious objection to encompass humanity’s wars against other living communities as well human communities.
Can a person be threatened or coerced into being a conscientious objector? Surely this is a contradiction in terms. Militancy is unlikely to subvert the dominant paradigm. It is the dominant paradigm.
After each presenter spoke, moderator Lydia Fiedler (the Vermont Law Review’s symposium co-editor) invited listener participation.
Brian Segee, staff attorney with Defenders of Wildlife, noting that Potter’s presentation brought up Martin Luther King more than once in connection with SHAC and the eco-militancy, asked Will Potter whether it was historically accurate to suggest a link between King’s views and arson.
Potter’s view appears to be aligned with that of Steven Best, a philosophy professor who has attempted to enlist Martin Luther King on the side of violence by claiming that King said, “I am only effective as long as there is a shadow on white America of the black man standing behind me with a Molotov cocktail.” No original source for this is cited in Best’s writings.
In fact, Martin Luther King actually addressed this specific point in the speech at Mountain Temple in Memphis on 3 April 1968, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” King said: “We don’t have to argue with anybody. We don’t have to curse and go around acting bad with our words. We don’t need any bricks and bottles, we don’t need any Molotov cocktails.” King then encouraged activists to go to the stores, and to the massive industries, ask for fairness and justice and respect for their personhood, and, if not heeded, withdraw economic support.
The case of vivisection is, of course, a distinct issue from civil rights protests. How would a protest withdraw economic support from the lab? A large, educational movement that creates a critical mass of people willing to see scientific proofs without vivisection is the only way to end animal research. Coercion is not now and never will be the answer.
* Editors’ note: Dr. King’s speech and many related points are detailed in Lee Hall’s book Capers in the Churchyard: Animal Advocacy in the Age of Terror (2006). Events leading up to the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, which would be enacted that same year, are outlined on pages 91-95 of that book, and also discussed in Hall’s article published in Dissident Voice. Will Potter’s remarks were written down phonetically by a note-taker in the audience and should not be considered an official transcript.
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