The Red Scare was less about evidence than really great PR. Joseph McCarthy and crew flacked one word so relentlessly, so virulently, that it became a political albatross to hang around anyone’s neck. The true meaning of the word fell by the wayside: communism became a fluid brand to slap on the enemy of the hour.
Now, Green is the new Red.
The administration is slowly replacing communists lurking in every shadow with terrorists. And terrorism may become an even better brand than communism for demonizing dissent. In March, six green activists found themselves among the first victims of a new front in the War on Terror, and of an old PR game.
They were convicted on “animal enterprise terrorism” charges–that’s right, terrorism– for campaigning to shut down an animal testing lab. On June 7, they will be sentenced: two defendants face up to a year in federal prison, and others likely face five to 10 years.
Did their terrorist campaign involve anthrax? Pipe bombs? A plot to hijack an airplane? Nope. They ran a website. They posted news about the campaign — legal actions like protests and illegal actions like stealing animals from labs — and unabashedly supported all of it. Since the feds haven’t been able to catch the saboteurs, they’re now cracking down on those in the spotlight. Think red baiting, with a green twist.
The activists work with Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty, an international organization dedicated to closing Huntingdon Life Sciences. HLS has labs in New Jersey and England, and five undercover investigations have shown workers punching beagle puppies in the face, dissecting live monkeys and falsifying scientific data.
SHAC brought the company to its knees, primarily through a Wall Street level knowledge of how corporations operate. The SHAC website schools activists in business savvy: primers on investors, market makers, and pink sheets. It also lists home and work addresses for anyone doing business with HLS, from bankers on down to toilet paper suppliers.
Activists take to the streets, the phones, and executives’ homes with bullhorns, phone blockades and plenty of smart-ass, aggressive rhetoric. Illegal actions have taken place as well, ranging from crude pranks to ominous threats. It all gets posted on the SHAC website.
It worked. The lab now teeters on the brink of economic collapse, after more than 160 companies, including Marsh Inc., UPS, and Fedex, have pulled out. The New York Stock Exchange dropped HLS in 2000, and the London Stock Exchange followed in 2001.
So how did the government do it? How was a landmark grassroots campaign turned into “terrorism”?
The government took the “you’re either with us or against us” rhetoric of the War on Terrorism, the same mentality as the Red Scare, and applied it to animal rights activists. If activists don’t prove they are “with us” by condemning sabotage, then they are clearly “against us” and one with the “terrorists.”
SHAC never tried to be in the “with us” camp. The defendants posted news of illegal actions with tongue-in-cheek commentary (think Nelson from The Simpsons pointing and laughing). Posted actions include subscribing a CEO to porno mags, setting off stink bombs in offices, and paint-stripping cars. They’re sometimes crude (calling a church and accusing a CEO that attends of fondling children) and often ominous (phrases like “we know where you live” appear in many communiqués).
SHAC put itself out on a limb by vigorously defending direct action, even as groups like the Humane Society of the United States and Sierra Club condemned underground actions to win political points. The F.B.I. then started sawing at the limb.
Take the testimony of F.B.I. Deputy Assistant Director John Lewis before a Senate committee last year. “SHAC’s overriding goal is to put HLS out of business, by whatever means necessary–even by violent means,” he said. “SHAC has used a variety of tactics. . . including bombings, death threats, vandalism.”
A few breaths later, though, he concedes “when these companies or individuals are threatened or attacked, it is not necessarily the work of SHAC itself.” SHAC has never been accused of any crimes posted on the website, but Lewis implies guilt for simply not condemning the perpetrators. That’s a lot like placing Americans on blacklists for not condemning communism.
He says that while “the SHAC organization attempts to portray itself merely as an information service or media outlet, it is closely aligned with these groups, as well as with the Animal Liberation Front.” By “closely aligned,” Lewis must mean ideologically. That’s another branding idea from the Red Scare toolbox: it’s risky to not condemn “eco-terrorism” (or communism), but vocally supporting it is downright suicidal.
The tactics SHAC supports don’t fit most Americans’ wholesome image of social change. The F.B.I. and biotech industries frequently note that and say something like, “It’s ok to protest, chant and leaflet, but it is inexcusable to advocate illegal actions.” Change the world, but play by the rules.
McCarthy and his cohorts would often say the same thing. They didn’t criminalize advocacy of fair economic systems: they did say, though, that some ideas–like communism– weren’t up for consideration.
The courts, though, have consistently said that the First Amendment protects even the most unconventional, commie and inflammatory speech.
For instance, the SHAC website included a lot of posturing, but it didn’t go as far as civil rights activist Charles Evers when he urged a Mississippi crowd to boycott white businesses with the words, “If we catch any of you going in any of them racist stores, we’re gonna break your damn neck.” The Supreme Court found that speech constitutionally protected.
Speech has limits, of course. In 2002, a federal appeals court ruled that the First Amendment did not protect a website called the Nuremberg Files, which posted pictures of doctors who performed abortions with their names underneath the photos, and crossed off the names of three of them as they were killed. That’s a far cry from SHAC posting a communiqué from “Pirates for Animal Liberation,” claiming responsibility for a sunken yacht that belonged to a Bank of New York executive.
Those Pirates are in murky water when it comes to their connection to SHAC–perhaps much murkier than Hollywood elite who philosophically supported communism, but didn’t advocate anything illegal. The pirates may have looked up an address on the website, or they may have used that old-fashioned listing of names and addresses: a phonebook.
Stratfor, a “global intelligence” company praised by Fortune Magazine for its research, explained it well. There are three legs to the SHAC campaign: illegal activists (the smallest group), legal activists (with signs and bullhorns) and passive sympathizers (opposed to animal cruelty, but not sure how to help). “Since there is no formal membership,” Stratfor says, “the numbers are in no way fixed — anyone can wake up tomorrow, read about SHAC on the Internet, and engage in an activity that night that propels them directly into the first tier.”
True, SHAC may inspire illegal activity, just like communists may inspire someone to pick up a gun for the Red revolution. But, Stratfor notes, SHAC’s conviction may inspire even more. “Ultimately, the conviction of the SHAC Six could serve to inspire more illegal activity, rather than less, and the trend could spread to involve larger numbers of groups and industries.” In that case, could U.S. Attorney Charles McKenna be held responsible for inciting angry environmental, antiwar and abortion rights activists?
Animal rights activists won’t be backing down from this witchhunt, and neither will Big Business. Corporations have been pushing the government to crack down on “eco-terrorists” since they lobbied to criminalize “animal enterprise terrorism” as part of the Animal Enterprise Protection Act of 1992. The SHAC case has only whetted their appetites. Underground activists have claimed credit for more than 1,200 criminal incidents since 1990, according to the F.B.I., and there are 150 pending “eco-terror” investigations. As David Martosko of the Center for Consumer Freedom, an industry lobby group, said after the conviction: “This is just the starting gun.” Corporations will keep the pressure on lawmakers and the F.B.I. to catch the saboteurs. And if the feds are either too lazy or too incompetent to score arrests of “eco-terrorists,” they’ll go after the next best thing– above-ground activists with the same goals, and the guts to say so. In this post-9/11 climate, evidence matters less than rhetoric and fear. The “War on Communism” operated under similar terms. If citizens didn’t “name names,” they were clearly “against us.” Witchhunts will test the backbone of today’s social movements, just as they did 60 years ago.
It’s not enough to cowardly distance ourselves from the “eco-terrorists,” as many did during the Red Scare. That won’t protect us. It’s up to progressive activists to stand with the defendants, and say loud and clear that “terrorism” can’t be batted around in political games. Speaking out against this government smear campaign doesn’t mean we’re balaclava-wearing animal liberationists: it means we know we could be the next communists.
I mean, terrorists.
WILL POTTER is a reporter based in Washington, D.C. He has written for The Chicago Tribune, The Dallas Morning News, Legal Affairs, and other publications. His writings on civil liberties and the War on Terrorism can be found at www.GreenIsTheNewRed.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org