Will Potter, author of “Green is the New Red”

By on August 7, 2011

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Will Potter is an award-winning independent journalist based in Washington, D.C., who focuses on “eco-terrorism,” the animal rights and environmental movements, and civil liberties post-9/11. Will’s work has appeared in publications including the Chicago Tribune, the Dallas Morning News, the Huffington Post, and the Vermont Law Review, and he has testified before the U.S. Congress about his reporting. He is a contributing author of The Next Eco-Warriors, and the author of Green Is The New Red: An Insider’s Account of a Social Movement Under Siege published by City Lights Books. Potter has also worked at the American Civil Liberties Union on policy issues including the Patriot Act. He is the creator of GreenIsTheNewRed.com, where he blogs about the Green Scare.

 

You cover both the environmental and animal rights movements in your book as well as on your site, Green is the New Red. AETA in particular is directed at animal activists, while Pennsylvania’s law was written to include those protecting “plants and animals.” What’s the logic – and the illogic – of lumping environmental and animal activists together? Based on your findings, are there key differences, not just in policymaking but in media or public opinion, for example?

From the beginning, the “eco-terrorist” label has been applied to both animal and environmental activists indiscriminately. I think this was frequently done out of convenience, and perhaps a lack of understanding of how animal rights groups might not see eye-to-eye with the environmental movements, and vice versa.

“Eco-terrorism” units within law enforcement, for instance, were established to cover both movements. Legislation has often been indiscriminate as well, although in recent years there has been an attempt to specifically target animal rights activists (rather than wrapping up environmentalists). To me this reflects that the differences between the animal rights and environmental movements are internal differences; to corporations and politicians, these movements represent overlapping threats to the same industries.

 

Let’s talk about the “ag-gag” bills introduced this year in Iowa (and defeated in New York, Florida and Minnesota). Iowa state rep Annette Sweeney, who introduced their bill, said in addition to Minnesota, legislators in Indiana, Missouri, and Nebraska are preparing to enact similar bills. This seems to have ALEC’s fingerprints all over it. What have you learned from studying these bills?

The recent attempts to criminalize undercover investigations are part of a long line of designer bills targeting the animal rights and environmental movements. Over the years, these have taken various forms at both the state and federal level. The most broad– and the most dangerous– model bill was created by corporations through the ALEC. It has been introduced in many states, but never passed in full. That legislation includes language very similar to these “ag-gag” bills.

Although I have not found any evidence that ALEC is directly involved in these bills, there clearly has been a cumulative impact: these attempts have been building upon each other for years. I have no doubt that similar legislation will be re-introduced around the country next year, and we should be prepared to raise awareness and defeat them just as swiftly.

 

Have you seen a difference in how the right wing and the left wing regard environmental or animal protection? You’ve had some publicity in progressive publications and websites for the book, and in our work, we’re getting a few more stories placed in this type of outlet. Have you noticed a small tide turning since you’ve been promoting the book?

I think that most people across the political spectrum are sympathetic to both animal and environmental issues. Activists, of course, recognize the disconnect between those professed values and standardized practices in this culture, and challenge people to reconcile the two.

To put this another way, I think that most people want to think of themselves as environmentalists or animal lovers. I don’t think we should underestimate that. In the last couple months, I’ve given about 40 interviews, in addition to reviews, guest blog posts, and other website features; nearly all of them have been with moderate or liberal media outlets, and I haven’t had a single negative experience. I have found that, overwhelmingly, people are distrustful of corporate power, frustrated with corrupt politicians, and deeply concerned about the destruction of the planet.

I think animal rights activists need to take a bit of responsibility and recognize how their message can be received. If people think what you are saying is crackpot, the solution is not to write them off but to reevaluate your tactics.

 

If I have one complaint about Green is the New Red, it’s that you wait until the last chapter to introduce the philosophy behind animal and environmental activism, and the ethics and values that your subjects live by. What was the strategy behind this?

I discuss these values throughout the book, by weaving them into the narrative (for instance, placing Daniel McGowan in an old growth forest, recreating ALF and ELF raids, recounting the formation of SHAC). I incorporated these issues in this way in order to maintain focus on the individuals affected, and civil liberties. My goal in writing this book was to reach beyond the animal rights and environmental movements, and I found that a heavy-handed emphasis on the ethics of these movements turned people off before they had a chance to learn about the individuals and their stories. Since the book has been out, I’ve heard from a few dozen people who were inspired by the characters in the book, and have decided to go vegan or become more of an activist. I think that’s fantastic.

 

Clearly this was a very personal project for you. Many times in the book, you mention being unsure about whether you were acting as a supporter or as a journalistic observer. You break that fourth wall quite often. Where do you see yourself now on that continuum? How do you keep your equilibrium while living a double life?

Both. Most journalists recognize that objectivity doesn’t exist, yet we also want to claim it. It’s a shield and a buffer and, above all, it’s safe. Of course, all journalists make value judgements, including “objective” journalists who do so in more subtle ways such as through the sources they quote or don’t quote, their structure, and their tone. I’m far from the first journalist to question the construct of objectivity, or to recognize my personal role in the story I’m telling. Journalists have an obligation to be, as the old muckraking saying goes, the people’s friend and the tyrant’s foe. We’ve lost sight of that.

It took me a long time to recognize this, but the most fair, truthful way I could tell this story was by recognizing my biases and putting them all on display for the reader.

 

 

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