July 28, 2015; The Intercept

Glenn Greenwald sees a contradiction in the U.S. government’s definition of terrorist. On the one hand, the FBI doesn’t consider Dylann Roof, the racist shooter who killed worshipers at a Charleston AME church, a “domestic terrorist”; on the other hand, it has arrested two animal rights activists, Joseph Buddenberg and Nicole Kassane, on the domestic terrorism charge that Roof has so far evaded.

The two activists were arrested just before the start of the Animal Rights National Conference. Their purported domestic terrorism involved freeing minks and foxes from a fur farm.

Is the federal government taking special aim at animal rights activists? Greenwald seems to think so, suggesting, according to sources the Intercept has spoken to, that “these well-timed indictments are designed to intimidate activists at the conference and more broadly to chill campaigns to defend animal rights.” He cites federal government actions against animal rights and environmental activists sending some to federal prison for lengthy terms as “the extreme abuse of the criminal law to stifle nonviolent political protest or even just pure political speech.”

Why take aim at animal rights and environmental activists? Greenwald suggests that the issue is that the targets of these activists are powerful corporations with major influence over various federal agencies. Plenty of people are moved by the moral implications of factory fur farms, but Greenwald notes that in addition, “these industrial practices spawn serious environmental degradation, exploit small farmers, and produce health risks for workers: practices that can remain undisturbed only as long as we remain blissfully unaware of the harms they cause.”

Greenwald takes the argument into another issue area that the NPQ Newswire has addressed in the aftermath of the #BlackLivesMatter protest at the Netroots Nation presidential candidates forum:

American elites are typically willing to tolerate political protest as long as it remains constrained, controlled, and fundamentally respectful of the rules imposed by institutions of authority—i.e., as long as it remains neutered and impotent. When protest movements adhere to those constraints, they are not only often ineffective, but more so, they can unwittingly serve as a false testament to the freedom of the political process and the generosity of its rulers (they let us speak out: see, we’re free!). That kind of marginal, modest ‘protest’ often ends up strengthening the process it believes it is subverting.

When, by contrast, a movement transgresses those limitations and starts to become effective in impeding the injustices it targets—particularly when preserving those injustices is valuable to the most powerful—that’s when it has to be stopped at all costs, including criminalizing it with the harshest possible legal weapons… The fear that the animal rights movement is growing stronger and will succeed in exposing the horrifying realities of these industries’ practices is driving the persecution to the point of declaring it to be—and formally punishing it as—terrorism.”

Toward that end, Buddenberg and Kassane were charged under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA), a law enacted in 2006 supported by the agriculture, pharmaceutical, and farming industries. Greenwald says that the American Legislative Exchange Council with pro-corporate, free market groups such as the Animal Enterprise Protection Coalition and the Center for Consumer Freedom led the drafting of the law.

It is quite a contrast. Roof’s alleged killing of nine African Americans in a Charleston church doesn’t get classified as terrorism. The vandalism allegedly perpetrated by Buddenberg and Kassane, involving paint, paint stripper, something like super-glue, muriatic acid, and butryric acid on the Furs by Graf store, a retail furrier in San Diego, gets classified as terrorism, not simply in the FBI’s public language but under the law covered by AETA.

Does it matter if Roof is or isn’t called a terrorist? It’s hard to say, but characterizing two animal rights activists as terrorists for engaging in storefront vandalism does have an impact. It could intimidate activists from other similar direct actions. It could sway juries to be more negative toward animal rights “terrorists” than they would be toward animal rights “vandals.” It could deter some of the support of liberals for animal rights activists whose free speech actions get demonized as terrorism.

“The propagandistic exploitation of the term ‘terrorism’ has produced a wide range of harms all over the globe,” Greenwald concludes. “Few harms are as severe as its ongoing use not only to stifle, but outright criminalize, political speech and noble activism.”—Rick Cohen