When Chicago Tribune reporter Will Potter went to pass out animal rights leaflets, he had no idea the FBI would single him out and pressure him to become an anti-activism informant, threatening his future if he refused. Here, we talk to the TED Fellow and author of Green is the New Red about this experience, which sent him into a whole new area of research. The crux of what he found: environmental and animal-rights activists are now considered the United States’ number-one domestic terrorism threat, and they are being prosecuted as criminals.
Do you think of yourself as an activist?
I don’t consider myself an activist, but there’s certainly an advocacy component when I’m talking about civil rights issues. My background’s in newspaper and magazine reporting. For a long time I tried to pursue the traditional newsroom path, and I was on it for quite a while. Then, when I was working at the Chicago Tribune, I had some experiences with the FBI that put me in a different direction in terms of the issues I was focused on. Then some good friends of mine were wrapped up in different terrorism prosecutions. These experiences immersed me in the issues unexpectedly, and that definitely changed the path that I was on.
What happened with the FBI?
At the Tribune, I was covering breaking news, shootings, murders and local government, and it was all horribly depressing. It was not the type of thing I went into journalism to do. I had a background in college in environmental activism, and protesting the World Trade Organization and the economic sanctions on Iraq, and I wanted to be involved in something positive like that again. So I went out leafletting with a group of people. We just passed out pieces of paper in a residential neighborhood about animal testing. I thought that was the most I could do as a working journalist — something so benign. And of course, since I have the worst luck ever, we were all arrested and charged. It was the only time I’ve been arrested. Those charges were later thrown out, of course. It was a frivolous arrest. And it’s still lawful to pass out handbills.
A couple weeks later, I was visited by two FBI agents at my home, who told me that unless I helped them by becoming an informant and investigating protest groups, they would put me on a domestic terrorist list. They also made some threats about making sure I wouldn’t receive a Fulbright I had applied for, and making sure my girlfriend at the time wouldn’t receive her PhD funding. I really want to think that I wouldn’t be affected by something like that, especially given my activist background, but it just scared the daylights out of me. It really did. That fear eventually turned into an obsession with finding out how this happened, how nonviolent protestors are being labeled as terrorists.
Did they not realize that you were a journalist?
They did, and they obviously didn’t think of the potential of me writing or talking about it. They specifically said, “You are the one of this group that has everything going for you.” They knew everywhere I worked, they knew my editors at the Tribune, they knew different journalism awards I received — and their message was, “Help us or we’re going to put you on a different path.” And they kept saying, “Don’t throw all this away.”
And so at one point, I just said, “What are you going to make go away? This is a class C misdemeanor for leafletting, there’s no way it’s going to hold up in court, and you’re talking about ruining my life.” I of course never became an informant, and never thought about doing anything like that, but — it changed the focus of my work, without a doubt.
Did they bother you after that?
Well, you know, it’s one of those things. It made me realize the power of fear. Because in a situation like that, you don’t know what actually is happening or will happen. There’s no way to find out. Certainly just a few months after 9/11 when this happened, but even today, with the extent of the government’s counterterrorism powers and how they’re being used. So when they talk about making sure I don’t receive a Fulbright, I didn’t receive it, but is that just because I’m not smart enough? Was it because my application wasn’t good enough? I don’t know. It’s impossible to know these things.
Years later, after my book came out, we did a Freedom of Information Act request. I found out that the counterterrorism unit has been monitoring my speeches and book and website. But in terms of day-to-day problems, I really haven’t had any.
How did environmental activism come to be treated as a terrorist crime?
I think the most important thing I found out in my research is that all of this was actually created by the industries that are being protested. In the mid-1980s, these corporations got together and created a new word called “eco-terrorist” — because at the time, these protest movements were growing very quickly and effectively, and they had widespread public support. There clearly was a concern that unless public opinion shifted, there’d be a really big problem on their hands.
So they made up this new word, and then started using public relations campaigns, lobbying, and held congressional hearings. Eventually, that language changed the popular discourse of how we talk about protest. And it was incredibly effective, to the point that now not only does the FBI label animal rights and environmentalists as the number-one domestic terrorism threat — even though they’ve never harmed a single human being — but we have new legislation that singles these protesters out for felonies and as terrorists for what are, in some cases, nonviolent protests.
To read the full interview, visit the TED Blog >>>