Red is the new Red

I just finished Will Potter‘s ‘Green is the New Red‘ which purports to show the ways in which the government, in conjunction with industry, have targeted eco and animal rights activists with through anti-terrorism initiatives since 9/11. There just isn’t much literature out there on the movement and its intersection with state and corporate interests so the work is a valuable, even if not authoritative, contribution to the field. Where the work really shines is in demonstrating, through Potter’s own angst about what his role should be, some of the contradictions and challenges the movement faces and will have to address if it wants to continue.

Potter writes his book from two perspectives: As a journalist and as an activist. As you read Green is the New Red you can feel those two perspectives battling it out for control of the narrative. Will’s journalistic voice is strongest when describing the evolution of anti-activist policy among various government agencies and industries. His activist voice comes to the fore when describing the trials (literally) and tribulations of activists he’s met over the past few years.

That approach works well as the latter voice is the one, I imagine, that will resonate with the activist crowd and those looking to confirm their existing beliefs. The former (journalist) voice is a more accessible one to those who might be approaching this subject fresh or from even a more skeptical position.

Perhaps because I also have experience in the government field as an analyst or maybe just because of my personality type, however, I found these two voices alternately repelling and attracting me from the activist community. As Potter explained the evolution of government policy and industry lobbying to get an ever-increasing list of activity labeled ‘terrorism’ and subject to the same penalties as al-Qaida members I found myself agreeing with his description of governmental overreach and erosion of constitutionally protected behavior.

And while that didn’t change with his profiles of activists facing years behind bars, the standard bearers he presented did not seem particularly worthy of sympathy. For the record, I’m rarely persuaded by appeals to emotion in cases like this but given my sympathies for animal and environmental causes anyway I was surprised at how turned off by these activists I was. I actually began to suspect that Potter was intentionally putting in unsympathetic characters to make a point about how everyone deserves first constitutional protections but fear his characters may actually represent the most sympathetic of the bunch. The activists Potter portrays are immature, petulant, small-minded thinkers, with either martyr and/or messiah complexes. While some were able to conceive of rather interesting and complex tactical operations (like SHAC) they appear almost uniformly unable to think strategically through a problem or understand the environment in which they operate.

And that is very frustrating to watch.

Two examples:

First, while the SHAC campaign was underway, the organizers set up a website and published accounts, tips, recommendations for action, etc. One such document was titled ‘Top 20 Terror Tactics’ and even though it was written by a pro-industry group (allegedly showing what sort of tactics were favored by British activists), the fact that is was printed, along with a snarky disclaimer AND public statements by SHAC organizers that illegal activity shouldn’t be condemned basically begs a prosecutor to connect the dots for a jury.

Second is the case of Dr. Vlasak. This knucklehead is an animal rights advocate that believes that violence in furtherance of the cause is completely justified. His desire for notoriety means there’s no venue in which he thinks silence is a good course of action and has even testified in front of Congress about how he thinks killing in the name of animal rights is a good idea. You would be hard pressed to think of someone who could do more damage to the movement than Vlasak, even if they were paid agents of a hostile government or industry. Yet, publicly, you don’t see any sort of public condemnation of Vlasak by the activists portrayed in Potter’s book. They don’t support violence but seem reluctant to condemn its use by others. Instead, they save their ire for ‘mainstream’ activist groups (like the Humane Society of the United States) for their public rejection of illegal methods or rolling over on anti-activist legislation.

And here, I’d make a few suggestions.

1) Take some advice from Ronald Reagan who had a line that went something like ‘If you agree with 80% of what I do, I’m going to consider you a friend and ally.’ There is a HUGE demographic out there that is potentially sympathetic to the eco/animal rights cause and there’s been some big successes when they’ve been enlisted. Just realize what it takes to get them on your side and how far you can push them. In short, go for the big tent. Regardless of what your goals are (saving a tract of land, preventing animal experimentation, etc.) these changes are going to butt up against not just economic interests but, in some cases, generations (if not millenia) of cultural and religious beliefs. You have to lay the groundwork and build allies to do so.

2) There’s an old cliché about African-Americans that says they have to be twice as good to get recognized half as much. That applies just as much to the direct action crowd when it comes to violence. It’s no longer going to be enough to put up some throw away line somewhere in the small print of a web page that says ‘we don’t condone violence’.

Even though there hasn’t been a case of anyone being harmed by animal/eco rights activists it doesn’t matter. Perception is reality and the direct action crowd isn’t winning this battle.

That means clear, unambiguous statements and actions condemning violence and calls for violence. The Occupy movement got it right when those idiots started agitating for violent actions and got kicked to the curb. Eco/Animal rights activists need to follow the same course. Anyone advocating violence needs to not only be denounced in the clearest and loudest possible way but made unwelcome in the community. This is the only exception to suggestion #1 above.

3) Non-violence does not mean no illegality. Civil disobedience has illegal activity inherent to it and Potter does a good job explaining how activists are increasingly boxed into silence (or irrelevance) if they follow the law to the letter. There is quite a bit of room for doing smarter actions, however. Again, the Occupy movement provides some interesting examples of effectiveness. It’s not clear how much sabotage is really effective over the long-term but undercover work, exposing abuse and cruelty, will likely be quite effective in the future. Given that a number of states have instituted or are considering ‘ag-gag’ laws which essentially make investigative journalism illegal, activists have an opportunity to ally with the press on 1st amendment issues and the animal loving public on anti-cruelty issues. In short…think through your campaign. [1. Oh…and if you’re going to engage in direct actions of the legal or illegal kind, find better co-conspirators. That means nobody who’s got a heroin addict for a room-mate, is convinced your action really is going to change the whole world overnight, or can’t be trusted with responsibility. Do yourself a favor and read the criminal complaints in terrorism cases that have come out over the past ten years. They are filled with the ranks of social misfits, mentally unbalanced, thrill seekers and those with limited cognitive ability.)

4) Given the small size of the direct action community I would recommend avoiding prison like the plague (there just aren’t enough people to waste like that considering your opponents resources) unless you have a clear message such a sentence would deliver to your audience. The examples in Potter’s book (specifically Nathan Block and Joyanna Zacher but most of the others as well) are examples of how NOT to do it. Don’t even consider conducting an illegal direct action if you aren’t totally prepared to spend time behind bars. If you are willing to spend years in a jail cell make sure it’s for a reason people will understand. Nelson Mandela, people understand. Forming a pagan prayer circle in front of the court-house is going to freak people out and convince everyone you’re a drug using kook who probably is better off locked far, far away. Quit helping your foes.

So, those past few paragraphs probably give you a taste of the frustration I felt reading Potter’s account of these dedicated kids (they were almost all people in their early 20s) piss away their opportunities for change because they were just as wrapped up in a flawed world view as the investigators and prosecutors that opposed them. I suppose that’s what it means to be young but their mistakes and foolishness practically leap off the page.

While Potter puts together a strong narrative about the evolution of anti-activist legislation and actions he comes up a bit short on two points.

  1. There are a lot of apples to oranges comparisons here that run along the lines of ‘Can you believe the government is going after these guys when X is happening.’ Potter is better than that line of argument as the fact that the U.S. government is not intellectually consistent in all its policies can hardly be news to anyone . It also ends up watering down his apples to apples comparisons, like when he talks about homeland security priorities (animal rights activists vs. right-wing extremists).
  2. Potter’s grasp on the working of the homeland security industrial complex is adequate but not perfect. He does repeatedly use the line that animal/eco rights extremists are the ‘top domestic terrorist threat’ in the U.S. and while the FBI director did say that, the quote was years ago and I think you’d be hard pressed to find a government official or agency to stand by that comment today. The homeland security field has shifted its focus pretty rapidly over the past decade and while I’d like to say that those shifts have been in response to threats I can’t. More often those shifts are knee jerk reactions to unsubstantiated threats and Hollywood scenarios or in response to pet projects and availability to federal dollars to support specific programs.

While Potter’s central argument is that the Eco/Animal rights movement has replaced communism as the bogey man du jour I think that events of the past year really show that ‘Red is the new Red’. The Occupy movement caused a collective freak out among the law enforcement/homeland security community and I suspect a big part of that was because you had all these people questioning (and challenging) the status quo. The Occupy movement, like the eco/animal rights movement was seen as ‘left wing’ (with some justification) and garnered the same sort of suspicion among (small ‘c’) conservative law enforcement and homeland security agencies. Such agencies just don’t get as worked up about right-wing activity (Remember when all those Tea Party people showed up at rallies with firearms? One wonders what the reaction would have been if the Occupy people had done that.) either of the legal or illegal variety. There are a lot of reasons for that (and this post is long enough so I won’t go into them here) but that’s how it is. Activist movements that have their origins on the left side of the political spectrum will garner more suspicion and distrust from ‘the man’ than those originating from the right.

There’s plenty to chew over in Potters book (all vegan, I promise!) and it’s well worth your time.

Update

So, it’s been roughly two weeks since I wrote the above and I didn’t publish it right away because I wanted to think about what frustrated me about the subjects of Potter’s book when I felt that I should have been predisposed to support them.  The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to revolve around Potter’s observation (correct, I believe) that the punk cultural roots of  the ‘radical’ eco-animal rights movement  continue to dominate. So, achieving goals isn’t enough for these activists…they need to achieve their goals while antagonizing a whole lot of people (maybe everyone) outside of their social circle.

And this is where the comparisons to the civil rights movement breaks down.  The Freedom Riders and pioneers of civil rights were arguing for inclusion into the American system.  The freedom to live, vote, work, travel and be educated regardless of color or religion.  Their argument, simplified, was ‘Look, we’re just like you in every way except the color of our skin. We want the same things that you want. Let us in.’

The ‘radical’ eco-animal rights movement, on the other hand, says ‘We reject virtually everything you stand for.  We aren’t interested in engaging you or trying to convince you. Now, let us in.’

And this, finally, leads us to the world of ‘should’ versus ‘is’.  Yes, a totally fair and just society should treat everyone equally and protect all.  But we know that often doesn’t happen.  Very few are skilled enough to take on multiple huge social issues simultaneously and have even the slightest hope of success.  Yet, Potter’s subjects seem determined to do just that and then act surprised when the hand of the state comes down hard upon them.

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