Green is the New Red

By Heidi Reynolds-Stenson

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Will Potter’s Green is the New Red chronicles the turn of events that led to animal rights and environmental activists being labeled as the #1 domestic terrorist threat in the U.S. (by the Deputy Assistant Direct of the FBI in 2005). He shows the consequences of this for people like Eric McDavid, who spent nearly 10 years in prison on conspiracy charges based on information from a young agent provocateur who befriended him, and even for people like himself, who was spooked when the FBI interrogated him about his friends and threatened that he and his partner would lose out on jobs, grants, and PhD funding. This book provides a compelling and intimate account of covert repression and its impact on a movement. Social movement scholars looking for theory building or testing will not find it, but what they will find is highly readable, engaging, at times very personal, and well-researched investigative journalism that captures the sense of fear, anger, and commitment of a small group of activists who came under increasing repression by the state.

Concern within the government about animal and environmental activists engaging in direct action and sabotage grew throughout the 1990s. But, empowered by the fear, resources, and political will following September 11th, the state showed increasing vigor in stopping this “green menace.” Potter documents the ways the state has sought to quell this threat using tools both new and old—including conspiracy charges, grand jury investigations, passage of the Animal Enterprise Protection Act, Communication Management Units (prisons within prison where political prisoners are denied any communication with the outside world), and terrorism enhancements to sentencing.

At it’s heart, this a story of the contested boundary between activism and terrorism, and who has the power to draw this line. The scholarly literature suggests that terrorism and activism are completely distinct phenomena, with different scholars and theories defining “terrorism studies” and “social movement studies” and with little cross-pollination. Green Is the New Red reminds us that, in practice, the line between activism and terrorism is not so sharp; it is socially constructed, contested, and moves over time. Often, the line is set by the political priorities of the state and by public fear and hysteria, as seen before in the Red Scare.

The story of the Green Scare, detailed in this book, demonstrates that this line, and response of the state, is often as much about activists’ ideology as their tactics. Over time, environmental “monkey wrenching” came to be redefined as terrorism, despite the fact that human life was never targeted or harmed, and despite the fact that violent actions taken by right-wing activists (like white supremacists and anti-abortion activists) during the same period were not similarly branded in this way. This is not unlike what Cunningham found in the patterns of covert repression under COINTELRO. As the title of the book suggests, these historical parallels are not lost on Will Potter. Running through the book is a thread that effortlessly connects historical and contemporary examples—post 9/11 developments in terrorism language and policy, McCarthyism, COINTELPRO.

The book uncovers the stories of government decision-making and covert surveillance and that of the dynamics within small, underground circles of activists. Both operate in the shadows, making this no easy task. Potter weaves together personal stories and descriptions with congressional hearings, court proceedings, and conversations in the halls of government and in the homes of activists. Despite being being a self-described movement “insider” who makes no pretense at neutrality, Potter acknowledges the complexities, nuances, and competing narratives involved. Still, he ultimately finds the expanding definition of terrorism, which came to be attached to the activists he focuses on, to be a deeply worrisome and dangerous precedent for a free society.

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Filed under Great Books for Summer Reading 2016, Uncategorized

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