In March 2014 Will Potter gave a TED Talk concerning the criminalization of non-violent activism, paying particular attention to animal rights and environmental activists. His talk was short; he described how he helped a local group hang doorknockers against animal testing. This peaceful protest then led to his arrest and threats, little short of blackmail, from the FBI two weeks later, who claimed unless he helped their organisation spy on activist groups, they would put him on a domestic terrorist list.
After this event, Will researched the reasoning behind such an arrest in order to understand how, despite utilizing otherwise peaceful methods of expression, hecould be blacklisted as a criminal. He discovered he was an eco-terrorist.
The term ‘eco-terrorists’ was invented in 1985 to describe the millions of people everyday that fight to sustain and protect our environment. These people want to stop oil pipelines. They fight to save rainforests. They climb over wire fences to rescue beagle puppies from animal testing. ‘They literally put their physical bodies between the whaler’s harpoon and the whale.’ However in 1992 the ‘Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act’ was passed under American federal law, prohibiting any person from ‘engaging, damaging or interfering with operations of animal enterprise.’ By law, these people are terrorists and, by law, what they are doing is terrorism.
Organisations that brought about this act include the ‘National Pork Producers Council’, ‘The American Kennel Club’, ‘Beef USA’, the ‘Animal Agriculture Alliance’ and ‘Fur Commission USA’. The publicity surrounding this law was low and indeed, at the time it was passed, less than 1% of Congress was present. The logic behind the law centered on the assumption that there needed to be legal control over the extremists and radicals, who vandalise and act dangerously in their protests for animal and environmental rights.
An example of such an individual is Daniel Andreas San Diego who, in 2009, joined Osama Bin Laden on the FBI’s ‘Most Wanted Terrorists’ watch list. San Diego was under federal indictment for allegedly igniting explosive bombs outside two North California firms, biotechnology giant Chiron and homecare-product manufacturer Shaklee. Such an act had the potential to destroy property and kill workers. A different case involved four individuals peacefully protesting outside the homes of professors who undertook research involving animal testing. This protest was carried out on public property, without the use of weapons – in short they posed no harm or threat to anyone around them.
Although both aforementioned examples involve the belief that animal testing needs to be stopped, there exists an obvious distinction between the ways in which each went about their protestations. San Diego is a criminal. The four protesters are not. Unfortunately, although this distinction exists on a human level, it has not been recognized on a legal level. American congress has failed to perceive the difference between extremists and non-violent activists… according to federal law, if you are of the belief that animal testing is wrong, you are a terrorist, whether you have bomb in your hand or not.
Will ended his TED Talk by encouraging the audience to become fearless when faced with fear. He proposes we equip ourselves with truth and an audacious self-conviction that the law attempts to repress. In a world where rules are created to remove freedoms and police treat activists holding posters as equals to extremists holding knives, it is clear that our opinions are being censored for the sake of maintaining business profits; the abolition of non-violent activism is approaching and suddenly the distinction between human rights and animal rights is harder to see.