In 2002, Will Potter was a Chicago Tribune reporter who, on a whim, agreed to hand out leaflets exposing the abuse of dogs and cats at the Huntington Life Sciences research laboratory. His memoir, Green Is the New Red, reveals how his life was changed by a visit from two FBI agents who demanded that he agree to inform on fellow animal-rights activists.
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What was your purpose in writing this memoir?
I made an effort to not write about the actual questions surrounding animal rights and environmental issues. What I want people who read the book to understand is how the Constitution is being undermined by the way protestors are being treated. This has a chilling effect on mainstream, non-violent protestors.
You mean like the FBI threatening you?
Yes. We were simply passing out leaflets explaining how Huntington Life Sciences abused animals… [in] the neighborhood of an executive whose firm insured the laboratory. It was a peaceful demonstration but we were arrested.
Then the FBI showed up at my house and said that if I didn't cooperate with them they would see that I didn't work at a newspaper again and I would be put on the domestic terrorist list.
You were scared?
Absolutely. I dealt with that fear for a long time but it also made me angry. I wasn't going to capitulate to that kind of threat. For me, it was a matter of integrity.
It made me determined to find out how these policies came to be and why people who were committing crimes against property were being called terrorists while anti-abortion protestors who committed violent acts were treated very differently.
You quit your job. And that led to your writing this book.
I had been a working as reporter at the metro desk. I quit that and began freelancing and working with the American Civil Liberties Union.
I wanted to raise the issue of the violation of constitutional rights, about my own experience and that of others in the movement. I don't think it matters whether people agree about environmental issues or animal rights. I wrote the book because I want to make people understand how constitutional concerns affect everyone.
You see a parallel to the witch hunt unleashed after WWII.
Yes. After 9/11, the Patriot Act ushered in a sweeping new definition of terrorism and the language was so vague that civil disobedience could be made to fit the criteria and be defined as a terrorist act.
Daniel McGowan is a central figure in your book. Can you talk about his case and how he has been treated?
McGowan was convicted for his role in two Earth Liberation Front arsons. These were serious crimes, but they involved property, not people. Yet he is being held in a new, secret experimental communications management unit that radically restricts his contact with the outside world, even his wife.
You were giving out leaflets written by Stop Huntington Animal Cruelty (SHAC). In the book, you write how they not only liberated animals held in captivity but threatened people who worked in the labs and even sank the fishing boat of an executive who worked in a bank that financed the lab. Weren't these crimes?
Absolutely. There is no doubt that there were crimes committed in some of these cases and I don't condone them. But I take exception to the way that these crimes are being categorized by the government as on a par with the acts of al-Qaida. These are non-violent crimes against property.
Animal-rights activists and environmentalists are being labeled as terrorists and this affects sentencing guidelines, which are disproportionate to the offense and how they are treated in prison.
And yet someone like Eric Rudolf, the Olympic Park bomber who killed two people and injured hundreds because he opposed abortion, is not treated in the same way.
Exactly. What seems to matter is not the nature of the crime but the politics behind it.