Tag Archives: FBI

Green Is the New Red: The Crackdown on Environmental Activists

One morning back in 2002, Will Potter, a young newspaper reporter on the metro desk at the Chicago Tribune, heard three heavy knocks on his apartment door. When he opened it, two FBI agents flashed their badges. They told Potter he could either come outside and talk with them, or they would visit him at work.

Downstairs in the alley, the agents brought up a demonstration that Potter and his girlfriend, Kamber Sherrod, had participated in a month earlier. They had joined in an animal rights leafleting campaign in the high-class suburb of Lake Forest, dropping flyers on the doorsteps of houses around the home of an executive in an insurance company that covered an animal testing laboratory. Both were arrested, along with numerous others, and charged by the local police with misdemeanor disorderly conduct. The charges weren’t serious, but the agents warned Potter of other possible consequences if he didn’t cooperate with them.

“He told me I could help them by providing more information about the other defendants and other animal rights groups,” Potter told me in an interview in Washington. “I had two days to decide.” Potter has described in writing what happened next: “He gave me a scrap of paper with his phone number, written on it underneath his name, Chris. ‘If we don’t hear from you by the first trial date,’ he said, ‘I’ll put you on the domestic terrorist list.’”

Potter was stunned. “I felt as if I was staring blankly ahead,” he said, “but my eyes must have shown fear. ‘Now I have your attention, huh?,’” Chris said. The agent went on to tell him, “’after 9/11, we have a lot more authority now to get things done and get down to business. We can make your life very difficult for you. You work at newspapers? I can make it so you never work at a newspaper again.’”

Potter left, and threw away the FBI’s number. The charges against him and the other demonstrators were dropped—but for years afterwards, small incidents recalled the FBI’s threats. When Kamber Sherrod went to the DMV in another state to renew her drivers’ license, “I was detained by several police officers as I was trying to leave the building, because, according to them, my name was ‘flagged’ in the system,” she told me. Before they finally let her go, they asked, “What happened in Chicago,?” and “I overheard one cop mention a ‘t-list.’” When J. Johnson’s car broke down years later in Arkansas and a cop idly ran his license plates, “flashing letters burst forth in bold: ‘member of terrorist organization, animal rights extremists, approach with caution.” And Kim Berardi, also arrested along with Potter, was blocked from boarding a flight at the Seattle airport, handcuffed, and questioned by “two SEATAC security officers, two FBI agents, two Homeland Security operatives, and two officers from the federal Joint Terrorism Task Force.”

For Will Potter, the FBI’s visit marked the beginning of what would become a career as an independent journalist, tracking the government’s prosecutions—and persecutions—of environmental and animal rights activists, which one FBI deputy director, at the height of the war on terror in 2004, identified as “our highest domestic terrorism investigation priority.” Because of this campaign’s similarities to the anti-communist witch hunts of the 1940s and 1950s, Potter dubbed his blog on the subject, launched five years ago, “Green Is the New Red.”

Potter’s book, published last month and also titled Green Is the New Red, documents the scare tactics used by the government, often in concert with large corporations, against even patently non-violent activist groups, which they dub “animal rights extremists and eco-terrorists.” Prime targets were the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and especially Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC). Far from targeting only their clandestine operations (which focused on corporate property damage), the FBI “argued that terrorism laws must be radically expanded to include the above-ground campaigns of groups like SHAC,” Potter writes. In November 2006, George W. Bush signed into law the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act.

Activists prosecuted under AETA have in several cases ended up in the “Communications Management Units” at two federal prisons. Created secretly during the Bush administration, these “experimental” units were supposedly designed to hold high-risk inmates, including terrorists, whose crimes warrant heightened monitoring of their external and internal communications. But the reality, as a current lawsuit by the Center for Constitutional Rights asserts, is that many prisoners end up in the CMUs “for their constitutionally protected religious beliefs, unpopular political views, or in retaliation for challenging poor treatment or other rights violations in the federal prison system.”

 Even attempting to communicate with those in a Communications Management Unit can subject a person to surveillance and harassment, as Potter learned early this year when he received some documents from Public Intelligence, a Wikileaks-style organization. The documents included what appeared to be a running report to law enforcement officials around the nation from the federal Bureau of Prison’s Counter-Terrorism Unit, which monitors correspondence in and out of CMU’s. (Sample reports appear here and here).

On his blog, Potter wrote about the reports’ contents.  Acknowledging that even “mundane” prisoner letters could include “coded threats,” Potter argues “that’s not what’s going on with the reports on environmentalists labeled ‘eco-terrorists.’” In these documents, “government officials make clear they are much more concerned about bad PR.” In one instance, “The Counter-Terrorism Unit notes an August 7, 2009 email received by Daniel McGowan, an Earth Liberation Front prisoner, regarding a possible vigil to raise awareness” about the CMUs. McGowan is part of the Center for Constitutional Rights’ lawsuit against the prison units. The report also describes an email to McGowan from CCR attorney Matthew Strugar, discussing efforts to raise awareness about the CMUs and challenge them. And here, Potter discovered his own name. According to the report:

Strugar described attending the animal rights conference in Los Angeles two weeks prior, in which an individual identified as Will spoke about inmate McGowan and his co-defendants’ cases, as well as the Communications Management Units (CMU). Will is believed to be Will Potter, an independent journalist based in Washington, DC…

In his email, Strugar wrote to McGowan: “Will was on four panels, I think, and talked a bit about you and your co-defendants’ cases and the situation with the CMUs. He’s a good advocate on that issue. There is still a lot of organizing and discussion about the Green Scare generally, which is good, and I talked a bit about green scare speech repression and the like. It was interesting.”

Potter writes that “It’s unsettling to see my name in documents produced by the Counter-Terrorism Unit. What’s even more disturbing, though, is the thought of scarce government resources being wasted on such reports…Lectures, public websites and First Amendment activity by journalists and attorneys should not be the purview of the Counter-Terrorism Unit. And even if you think that it should be, and even if you think I am some kind of potential terrorist, this “intelligence briefing” is absolutely useless. Any intern could have created the same report using Google.”

When I phoned the Bureau of Prisons media relations office to ask about this report, a spokeswoman said I would have to request the documents under the Freedom of Information Act.  “I know what you mean,” she said, “but I can’t comment on it.”

The Hidden History of Katrina

Confronted with images of corpses floating in the blackened floodwaters or baking in the sun on abandoned highways, there aren’t too many people left who see what happened following Hurricane Katrina as a purely “natural” disaster. The dominant narratives that have emerged, in the four years since the storm, are of a gross human tragedy, compounded by social inequities and government ineptitude—a crisis subsequently exploited in every way possible for political and financial gain.

But there’s an even harsher truth, one some New Orleans residents learned in the very first days but which is only beginning to become clear to the rest of us: What took place in this devastated American city was no less than a war, in which victims whose only crimes were poverty and blackness were treated as enemies of the state 

—Photo by flickr user tidewater muse used under a Creative Commons license.

—Photo by flickr user tidewater muse used under a Creative Commons license.

It started immediately after the storm and flood hit, when civilian aid was scarce—but private security forces already had boots on the ground. Some, like Blackwater (which has since redubbed itself Xe), were under federal contract, while a host of others answered to wealthy residents and businessmen who had departed well before Katrina and needed help protecting their property from the suffering masses left behind. According Jeremy Scahill’s reporting in The Nation, Blackwater set up an HQ in downtown New Orleans. Armed as they would be in Iraq, with automatic rifles, guns strapped to legs, and pockets overflowing with ammo, Blackwater contractors drove around in SUVs and unmarked cars with no license plates.

“When asked what authority they were operating under,” Scahill reported, “one guy said, ‘We’re on contract with the Department of Homeland Security.’ Then, pointing to one of his comrades, he said, ‘He was even deputized by the governor of the state of Louisiana. We can make arrests and use lethal force if we deem it necessary.’ The man then held up the gold Louisiana law enforcement badge he wore around his neck.”

The Blackwater operators described their mission in New Orleans as “securing neighborhoods,” as if they were talking about Sadr City. When National Guard troops descended on the city, the Army Times described their role as fighting “the insurgency in the city.” Brigadier Gen. Gary Jones, who commanded the Louisiana National Guard’s Joint Task Force, told the paper, “This place is going to look like Little Somalia. We’re going to go out and take this city back. This will be a combat operation to get this city under control.”

Ten days after the storm, the New York Times reported that although the city was calm with no signs of looting (though it acknowledged this had taken place previously), “New Orleans has turned into an armed camp, patrolled by thousands of local, state, and federal law enforcement officers, as well as National Guard troops and active-duty soldiers.” The local police superintendent ordered all weapons, including legally registered firearms, confiscated from civilians. But as the Times noted, that order didn’t “apply to hundreds of security guards hired by businesses and some wealthy individuals to protect property…[who] openly carry M-16’s and other assault rifles.” Scahill spoke to Michael Montgomery, the chief of security for one wealthy businessman who said his men came under fire from “black gangbangers” near the Ninth Ward. Armed with AR-15s and Glocks, Montgomery and his men “unleashed a barrage of bullets in the general direction of the alleged shooters on the overpass. ‘After that, all I heard was moaning and screaming, and the shooting stopped. That was it. Enough said.'”

Malik Rahim, a Vietnam veteran and longtime community activist, was one of the organizers of the Common Ground Collective, which quickly began dispensing basic aid and medical care in the first days after the hurricane. But far from aiding the relief workers, Rahim told me this week, the police and troops who began patrolling the streets treated them as criminals or “insurgents.” African American men caught outside also ran the risk of crossing paths with roving vigilante patrols who shot at will, he says. In this dangerous environment, Common Ground began to rely on white volunteers to move through a city that had simply become too perilous for blacks.

In July, the local television station WDSU released a home video, taken shortly after the storm hit, of a local man, Paul Gleason, who bragged to two police officers about shooting looters in the Algiers section of New Orleans.

“Did you have any problems with looters,” asked an officer.

“Not anymore,” said Gleason.

“Not anymore?”

“They’re all dead,” said Gleason.

The officer asked, “What happened?”

“We shot them,” said Gleason.

“How many did you shoot?

“Thirty-eight.”

“Thirty-eight people? What did you do with the bodies?”

“We gave them to the Coast Guard,” said Gleason.

Gleason told his story with a cup of red wine in one hand and riding a tractor from Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World.

Although the government’s aid efforts were in chaos, those involved in the self-generated community rescue and relief efforts were often seen as a threat. Even so, Common Ground, founded in the days after Katrina hit, eventually managed to serve more than half a million people, operating feeding stations, opening free health and legal clinics, and later rebuilding homes and planting trees. But they “never got a dime” from the federal government, says Rahim. The FBI did, however, recruit one of Common Ground’s founders, Brandon Darby, as an informant, later using him to infiltrate groups planning actions at the 2008 Republican National Convention.

And while the government couldn’t seem to keep people from dying on rooftops or abandoned highways, it wasted no time building a temporary jail in New Orleans. 

Burl Cain, the warden of the notorious Angola Prison, a former slave plantation that’s now home to 5,000 inmates, was rushed down to the city to oversee “Camp Greyhound” in the city’s bus terminal. According to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the jail “was constructed by inmates from Angola and Dixon state prisons and was outfitted with everything a stranded law enforcer could want, including top-of-the-line recreational vehicles to live in and electrical power, courtesy of a yellow Amtrak locomotive. There are computers to check suspects’ backgrounds and a mug shot station—complete with heights marked in black on the wall that serves as the backdrop.”

In the virtual martial law imposed in New Orleans after Katrina, the war on the poor sometimes even spilled over into the war on terror. In his latest book Zeitoun, published in July, Dave Eggers tells the story of a local Syrian immigrant who stayed in New Orleans to protect his properties and ended up organizing makeshift relief efforts and rescuing people in a canoe. He continued right up until he was arrested by a group of unidentified, heavily armed men in uniform, thrown into Camp Greyhound, and questioned as a suspected terrorist. In an interview with Salon, Eggers said:

Zeitoun was among thousands of people who were doing “Katrina time” after the storm. There was a complete suspension of all legal processes and there were no hearings, no courts for months and months and not enough folks in the judicial system really seemed all that concerned about it. Some human-rights activists and some attorneys, but otherwise it seemed to be the cost of doing business. It really could have only happened at that time; 2005 was just the exact meeting place of the Bush-era philosophy towards law enforcement and incarceration, their philosophy toward habeas corpus and their neglect and indifference to the plight of New Orleanians.

Through all the time that the federal and local governments, in concert with wealthy New Orleanians, were pitching their battle, there was virtually no one fighting on the other side. Reviewing the “available evidence” a month after Katrina, the New York Times concluded that “the most alarming stories that coursed through the city appear to be little more than figments of frightened imaginations.” The reports of residents firing at National Guard helicopters, of tourists being robbed and raped on Bourbon Street, and of murderous rampages in the Superdome—all turned out to be false.

But the truth of what happened in New Orleans—vigilantism and racially tinged violence, a military response that supplanted a humanitarian one—is equally sinister.

Abortion Doctor Murder Suspect Makes Threats from Jail (but Don’t Call Him a Terrorist)

Excuse me, but is Scott Roeder, the man charged with killing Dr. George Tiller outside his church last Sunday, in jail, or on vacation at a Wichita hotel? In a call to the Associated Press over the weekend, the murder suspect complained about his living conditions and then threatened more abortion clinic violence.

“I know there are many other similar events planned around the country as long as abortion remains legal,” Roeder said. When asked by the AP what he meant and if he was referring to another shooting, he refused to elaborate further.

In an understatement, Nancy Keenan president of NARAL-Pro-Choice America, said Roeder’s comments “continue to escalate that kind of activity, that kind of violence.’’ The Justice Department said it was investigating and has ordered increased protection for “appropriate people and facilities last week.”

But as yet–and despite Roeder’s threats–the crime is apparently being treated as an isolated incident of violence, rather than part of a deadly crusade with political aims–which in this day and age is what  usually gets called terrorism.

The Wichita Eagle today reported today that the suspect would likely be charged with Tiller’s murder, as well as with aggravated assault (for threatening two churchgoers who tried to apprehend him). According to the paper, “Wichita police said it appeared that the suspect had acted alone but that they are investigating whether he had any connection to anti-abortion groups.”

Whether he had any connections?

Within hours of Roeder’s arrest, it was clear that he was up to his neck in the radical wing of the anti-abortion movement, as well as involved with the far-right anti-government group the Freemen. On the night of the shooting the Kansas City Star’s Judy Thomas reported that the suspect was labeled a “fanatic” even by some other right-to-lifers, supported the idea of “justifiable homicide” to prevent abortions. He had made prison visits to the woman who shot and wounded Tiller in 1993, and wrote a Web post declaring, “Tiller is the concentration camp ‘Mengele’ of our day and needs to be stopped before he and those who protect him bring judgment upon our nation.” He was also arrested in 1996 with weapons and bomb-making materials in his car (for which he received two years’ probation).

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that Roeder would have an easy time of things in Wichita, which has long been a ground zero for anti-choice activists. In fact, the city–and the state–seem to have made more effort to prosecute Tiller on trumped up charges than they did to protect him. As the Wichita Eagle reports:

Tiller and his clinic have faced continuous threats and legal action. A Wichita jury ruled in March that he was not guilty of illegal abortion on 19 criminal charges he faced for allegedly violating a state law requiring an independent second physician’s concurring opinion before performing late-term abortions. Immediately following the ruling in the criminal case, the Kansas Board of Healing Arts made public a similar complaint against Tiller that was originally filed in December 2008.

Protesters blockaded Tiller’s clinic during Operation Rescue’s “Summer of Mercy” protests during the summer of 1991, and Tiller was shot by Rachelle Shannon at his clinic in 1993. Tiller was wounded in both arms. Shannon remains in prison.

The clinic was bombed in June 1986 and was severely vandalized last month. His lawyer said wires to security cameras and outdoor lights were cut and that the vandals also cut through the roof and plugged the buildings’ downspouts. Rain poured through the roof and caused thousands of dollars of damage in the clinic. Tiller reportedly asked the FBI to investigate the incident.

It’s not clear whether the FBI took any action–but as yet, the Justice Department, too, has not dealt with Tiller’s murder as anything but a lone incident. On the day of the shooting, Attorney General Eric Holder called the murder “an abhorrent act of violence.” On Friday, the Department of Justice said it was opening an investigation that would “consist of a thorough review of the evidence and an assessment of any potential violations of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE Act) or other federal statutes”–which is better than nothing, but still a pretty palid response under the circumstances. Holder also said he was sending U.S. Marshals to protect other abortion providers as a “precautionary measure.” The very need to take such a measure would, again, suggest an organized, violent movement–but Holder has never used anything close to the T word, either.

I’ve often written before that both federal and state law enforcement tend to be circumspect when it comes to pursuing organized domestic far-right activity. Can you imagine what would happen if an Arab American had shot someone, after posting screeds on an Islamic extremist web site? The anti-abortion movement also gets a free pass compared with environmental or animal rights activists, or even Republican Convention protestors, as Will Potter notes on his excellent web site Green Is the New Red:

The FBI labels the animal rights and environmental movements as the “number one domestic terrorism threat” even though those activists have never harmed a human being. At the very worst, underground groups like the Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front have released animals from fur farms, destroyed SUVs and set fire to empty buildings.

When animal rights activists or environmental activists are arrested, though, the government immediately sends out press releases and holds press conferences trumpeting the arrest of “eco-terrorists” and “domestic terrorists.”

In contrast, Roeder is being held in a local county jail, while the Army of God celebrates him as a hero, Operation Rescue once again scambles to distance itself from an act they helped inspire, and anti-choice Christian commentators piously decry the “wicked deed in Wichita,” but can’t pass up an opportunity to remind us that “abortion is murder” and “what goes on in those clinics is institutionalized homicide.”

And while suspected Muslim terrorists are held in total isolation for years, without access to lawyers, much less the press, Scott Roeder is taking advantage of his bully pulpit to promote his cause–and complain about the discomfort of his jail cell:

 In two separate calls to AP on Sunday morning, Roeder was far more talkative about his treatment at the Sedgwick County jail, complaining about “deplorable conditions in solitary” where he was kept during his first three days there.

Sedgwick County Sheriff Robert Hinshaw said that Roeder is receiving appropriate medical treatment.

“It is after all a jail, but a modern state-of-the-art facility with professional staff,” Hinshaw said. “While Mr. Roeder may not care for being in the Sedgwick County jail, all of our conditions and policies are designed to provide safety and security for all inmates, staff and public at large.”

Roeder said it was freezing in his cell. “I started having a bad cough. I thought I was going to have pneumonia,” he said.

He said he called AP because he wanted to emphasize the conditions in the jail so that in the future suspects would not have to endure the same conditions.

Roeder also said he wanted the public to know he has been denied phone privileges for the past two days, and needed his sleep apnea machine.

Now, contrast this treatment with that afforded Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, whom I’ve written about before. These two men have been held in solitary confinement in 6×9 cells for 37 years at Louisiana’s Angola state prison, and denied access to the press. There is evidence that they have been singled out for this treatment because nearly four decades ago they were active with the Black Panther Party.

But a man accused of first degree murder for killing a doctor in service of a political cause–something which has, of course,  happened before–gets to use the phone (twice) to call the AP, complain that he’s cold and can’t sleep, and while he’s add it, warn of more murders? And the county sheriff’s response is to get defensive and say that their jail is really quite nice?

What is the matter with Kansas? And while we’re at it, what’s the matter with the Feds?