From award-winning journalist to ‘eco-terrorist’
- Published: 14 May 2011
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15 May 2011
It’s nine in the morning. My girlfriend, Kamber, sleeps on the futon, exhausted from a night shift as a sous-chef at the Chicago Diner, a local vegetarian restaurant. Her hands perch on her chest. They always ache from hours of chopping carrots, potatoes and hunks of faux meat. I put on my shoes and say goodbye to the dogs, Mindy and Peter.
Just as I place my hand on the doorknob, someone knocks three times.
I turn the knob without looking through the peephole. It must be the landlord. Again. He’s gotten into the habit of arriving unannounced with prospective tenants. He says he likes showing our apartment, one of the freshly renovated studios in the seventy-something-year-old building in Lincoln Park, because it’s so “clean” and
“uncluttered” (meaning we can’t afford more than the futon).
Before I open the door, though, I know it’s not Steve the Landlord. The dogs are barking. Mindy and Peter are snarling, and they never snarl, they never growl. I open the door anyway.
God and Darwin work together sometimes, scheming a kind of divine natural selection, predetermining certain people for certain occupations. This is not to say that a seven-foot-two man cannot rise beyond a basketball stereotype or that boys named Devendra must become hippie poet laureates wearing beaded vests and braided beards. It just seems natural.
And these guys, with their manicured goatees, navy blue suits, broad shoulders, hard jawlines, wholesome haircuts and eyes looking for a fight—these guys are just naturally FBI agents. I don’t even need to see the badges.
I say I’m in a hurry and have to get ready for work, and then I start to close the door, as if they’re kids selling third-tier magazines for an alleged school basketball team. The good cop—or I’ll call him the good cop, only because he looks less eager to kick my ass—puts his left palm on the gray steel door. I can either come downstairs, he says, or they can visit me at work, the Chicago Tribune.
The dogs bark. Panic. I’m not afraid of them, but I am afraid of a spectacle in the newsroom. I say okay. I gently close the door, hoping that Kamber, a few feet away, might sleep through all of this, hoping that, if I’m quiet enough, I can tiptoe my way out of my apartment and out of my skin. I roll up my right pant leg so it won’t catch in my bike chain and I pick up my road bike.
What’s going on, Kamber says. It’s the FBI, I say matter-of-factly, just as if it had been Steve the Landlord.
We cram into the freight elevator, Good Cop, Bad Cop, my bicycle and me. I don’t know what to do with my eyes. I look at Good Cop and he looks at my bike, peering over his slightly bulging midriff and down at the hubs, bending to see the crank arms and the rear derailleur.
He seems like the kind of guy I cross paths with downtown who climbs out of his SUV, with pleated khakis and blue polo, and says something like, “How far do you ride?” And no matter what I reply, three miles or thirty miles, he says, “Oh, that’s not bad at all.”
The elevator grinds to a halt, the latticework steel door creaks open, and we walk through the dark hallway to the alley. It is a gloriously sunny Chicago summer day, but the sunlight cannot overcome the condominium towers of steel and glass, cannot swim through the cracks in the walls, and so I step into an alley shrouded in gray.
In college, I had learned about government programs like COINTELPRO and the tactics the FBI had used to harass and intimidate political activists. False names, phone taps, bugs, infiltration.
I had learned from books, from professors and from Law & Order episodes that if approached by the FBI, for any reason, you should never talk. Nothing good can come of it. They are not trying to be your friends, they are not trying to help you. You should simply say, “I don’t have anything to say to you. You may contact my lawyer.”
Both Good Cop and Bad Cop had heard that line before. “Look, we just want to talk to you,” Good Cop says. “We want you to help us out. We can make all this go away.”
I laugh. He becomes angry. I open my mouth, even though I know I shouldn’t.
Working long hours on the metro desk at the Chicago Tribune, covering shooting after shooting, interposed only by obituaries and more death, turned me into the reporter I had never wanted to become. For months I had felt detached, apathetic and cynical.
About a month before the visit from the FBI, I wrote in my journal: “I’m tired of writing meaningless stories, I’m tired of going to sleep at night feeling like I left the world the same way I saw it in the morning.”
I was haunted by one afternoon at another newspaper, the Arlington Morning News, when I was eighteen. At a sleepover, after his pals had tired of roughhousing, playing games and watching television, a twelve-year-old boy decided to show his buddies his father’s gun. It was fired. A best friend was killed.
My editor had told me not to come back without the story. It was a poor, North Texas suburban neighborhood, predominantly Mexican immigrants, the kind of place where most folks use pay phones as their home phones. I knocked on doors, found a translator, and interviewed the boy’s sobbing mother and glass-eyed friends.
One of his friends, who had not even the first soft sprouts of facial hair, stopped me as I walked to my car. He said that that morning, when he stood near the police tape and watched the spectacle, a butterfly landed on his shoulder, slowly raising and lowering and raising its wings, refusing to fly away from the flashing blueand-whites and punctuating wails. He said his friend had become that butterfly.
Didn’t I think so? Of course, I said. Couldn’t I please put that in my story?
When I returned to the newsroom, I told my editor I had enough for an article. She told me to have fifteen column inches in an hour. After I turned and walked to my desk, I heard her yell to
the night editor. “Scratch that. Potter got something. Bump back that other piece and make room for this one. You can slug it ‘deadkid.’”
Dead kid. Two words that could quickly identify the story in editorial meetings while distancing reporters and editors from any emotional attachment to the boy, any sense of responsibility to his family, and any memory beyond a solid clip on page one.
I had told myself I would never become that kind of reporter. I would not put up that wall, even if, like one copy editor I will never forget, it meant keeping a fifth of Jack Daniels in the file cabinet, even if, like another reporter I knew, it meant snorting cocaine in the bathroom stall. Even if the grief slowly burned away at my stomach lining and my heart.
After only a few months into my stint at the Tribune, I had already built a spectacular wall of emotional detachment. It felt as if it were made of broken bottles and concrete chunks, sharp and gray. I would never survive this beat, I thought, unless I found some way to keep a toehold on my humanity. I did not have the gumption for Jack Daniels or cocaine.
Instead, a friend, whom I had met at a journalism conference, offered me the email addresses of a few local animal advocacy groups.
I had gone vegetarian in 1998 and vegan six months later. At the University of Texas, I had worked with a few activist groups to campaign against the economic sanctions on Iraq, serve free vegetarian food on campus, and organize a film and lecture series on journalism issues.
I did not think it would be appropriate to take a leadership role in any organization while working at the Tribune.
Newspapers sometimes frown upon their reporters moonlighting with advocacy groups, unless it’s something no one would publicly oppose, like promoting the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday or feeding Sally Struthers’s children. But one month prior to the FBI agents knocking on my door, I’d decided to spend an afternoon leafleting.
Kamber and I met six local activists at the A-Zone, or Autonomous Zone, which was part independent bookstore and part rabble-rouser gathering place. It offered titles on topics including the Zapatistas, herbal medicine and bicycle repair. From there we caravanned to Lake Forest, a suburb north of Chicago and the home of a corporate executive with Marsh Inc., an insurance company for an animal testing lab called Huntingdon Life Sciences.
I had learned about Huntingdon while working on a story at the Texas Observer. My story mentioned a group called Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty, or SHAC, that pressured corporations to sever ties with the lab after multiple undercover investigations exposed animal welfare violations.
The goal of that Sunday afternoon was simply to pass out leaflets in the neighborhood of the Marsh insurance executive. We split up in pairs and hung fliers on brass and brushed-steel doorknobs. The front of the fliers featured one of two photographs, either a monkey or a beagle puppy in a cage. On the back was a short history of the lab and its abuses, and a request that readers urge their neighbor to cease doing business with Huntingdon.
The fliers made no suggestion of violence or property destruction, and they made no threats. They spelled out what went on in the lab, how Marsh was connected, and why readers should ask their neighbor to take action.
After about twenty minutes, we had not made much progress. The heavy wooden front doors sat confidently at the end of long, immaculate walkways that looked as if they’d never been trod. This was the type of neighborhood where people pulled their Mercedes or BMW straight into the garage.
When we finally reached the executive’s cul-de-sac, a security guard stood outside videotaping. Not to be outdone, one of the leafletters—the youngest in the group, at about sixteen—pulled out a camera of his own and began filming the security guard filming him.
Later, the guard, Al Cancel, wrote a voluntary statement for the police saying that activists “were now begining [sic] to sarround [sic] me causeing [sic] me to back away so they could not get behind me. Then the one I attempted to speak with directed the other seven in milatary [sic] fashion to film me. . . .”
The young activist’s video footage showed the security guard on the phone telling police, “They’re not doing anything. They’re passing out leaflets. You should get over here though.”
Squad cars arrived. Police questioned us. More squad cars arrived. The police sat us on the grass, like parents who were about to discipline bickering children but must first decide who did what to whom. They confiscated the leaflets. One cop with aviator sunglasses looked at a leaflet, tilted his head down and peered at us over the gold rim of his sunglasses.
The Mercedes, BMW and Lexus SUVs driving by slowed down to a crawl and rubbernecked at the young group surrounded by police. One woman with big hair, a silver sedan and a low-cut tank top lowered her window and leaned out. “Officer! Officer!” She flapped a leaflet at him. “I thought you might need this,” she said. “As evidence.”
“Thanks, ma’am. We have the situation under control.” A few of the detainees peppered the cops with questions. Why were we being detained? What did we do wrong? If we were putting up fliers for a landscaping service, would we have been stopped?
One cop said that this executive’s house had been vandalized months before. He said we might have been the ones who did it.
Everyone laughed. I sat cross-legged, picking at the ground between my legs, and I could not help but laugh, too. Why would anyone vandalize someone’s home and then return to pass out leaflets?
The cops walked over to Al the Security Guard and talked for a few minutes. When they came back, they said we were being arrested.
They would not say what the charge was, and they wouldn’t tell us what we had done wrong. We were handcuffed, divided into squad cars, and taken to the police station. Most of the group was in good spirits, because we all assumed the bogus charges would just get thrown out in court. At the station, the officers took mug shots and asked if we had tattoos.
Kim Berardi, wearing a sleeveless shirt exposing a tattoo of a sunflower, with curls of wind twisting around the stem and around her biceps, looked at the officer and, straight-faced, said no. “I draw these on every day,” Kim said. “They’re washable.”
The cops and the kids all laughed. Kim looked at me. “Oh man,” she said, “Will looks totally pissed. What, are you going to lose your big shot job for leafleting?”
After the FBI agents follow me out of the apartment building and into the alley, Bad Cop starts needling. You were leafleting on a campaign where people have been breaking windows and harassing people, he says. “Just look at the people you were arrested with.”
He reads names. “Kim Berardi, she has a criminal record taller than she is.”
Maybe, I think. She’s the shortest woman I know.
“We just want your help,” he says. “We need your help finding out more about these people. You could help us.”
I should just walk away, I think. There is no reason to be standing here. Nothing good can come of it. He says I have two days to decide. He gives 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 in Lake Forest,” he says, “I’ll put you on the domestic terrorist list.”
Walk away, walk away, walk . . . wait, what? My face feels expressionless, but my eyes must show fear.
“Now I have your attention, huh?”
I can’t bite my tongue. Put me on a terrorist list for leafleting? Later, in my journal, I will write as much as I can remember from what he says.
“Look,” Chris says, “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. And Kamber, her scholarships? Say goodbye to them. I can place one call and have all those taken away. Those scholarship committees don’t want terrorists as recipients.”
I have a Fulbright application pending, and Kamber is preparing for a PhD program in psychology.
Good Cop speaks up. “I can tell you’re a good guy,” he says. “You have a lot going for you.” He says he can tell by the way I dress, where I live. He says he knows my dad cosigned on the apartment, and the FBI knows where he works. “I know you wouldn’t have gotten the job at the Tribune if you didn’t have a lot of promise. You don’t want this to mess up your life, kid. We need your help.”
I want to walk away, but I am so goddamn angry now I can’t. People who write letters, who leaflet, aren’t the same people who break the law. “I thought you guys would have figured that out.” I crumple his phone number in front of him and toss it in a nearby dumpster. I straddle my bike.
As I pedal off, just before I leave the shadows and reach the sunlight, Chris says: “Have a good day at work at the Metro desk. Say hello to your editor, Susan Keaton. And tell Kamber we’ll come see her later.”
After I arrive at Tribune Tower, after I report to my editor and settle at my desk with a story assignment—more murder on the South Side—I come undone. My left hand shakes. Strangling the phone so my fingers stop twitching, hunching to look as if I’m interviewing, whispering so colleagues can’t hear, I call Kamber. I tell her to deadbolt the door while staying on the phone, to walk past any FBI agents on the way to work, and to think about telling her coworkers in case cops show up asking questions.
Don’t worry, she says, the guys in the kitchen all hate la policía. I scan the newsroom. Do they already know? They know. Right? That Fed, the one who probably manicures his pornstar goatee every morning while listening to Rush Limbaugh, might already be flashing his badge downstairs; his pal, the one who looks like he bought some kind of shrink-wrapped FBI starter kit, with too-short slacks, bad tie, worse haircut, might show up any minute.
He doesn’t. But as days go by, I keep thinking that he will. I become the undead. I should be calling sources, I should be writing.
I have deadlines looming, but all I can think about is how I am on a domestic terrorist list. I’m convinced my professional life is over.
Even worse, I’m convinced these FBI agents will somehow pass the word on to my parents, who will be so disappointed in me, and to my little sister, who’ll stop looking up to me. These thoughts burrow somewhere deep in my brain and, no matter how irrational they sound, I begin to see them as truth.
Will the FBI agents make sure I don’t receive my Fulbright grant? I want to follow up on a series I wrote for the Arlington Morning News about a peace program that brings teens from Northern Ireland to live with host families in the United States. I won a national award from the Society of Professional Journalists for the series, and a slew of professors, editors and teens wrote letters supporting a follow-up project.
If I am denied the grant, will it be because of intense competition, or because I’m now on a blacklist? If Kamber is denied full funding for her PhD program, will it be because of budget cuts, or because of an anonymous phone call? If I am denied newspaper jobs I’ve applied for in Washington, D.C., will it be because of my qualifications, or because I’m now a “terrorist”?
Day after day, I go to work, crank out an assignment, come home and sit quietly with the dogs. I mdon’t talk to Kamber, and when I do I snap or scream at her.
During the car ride home from the first, preliminary court date in Lake Forest, Kamber mentions the FBI visit. One of the defendants, Mike Everson, turns to me while driving, and for a few painful moments he does not even speak. He isn’t surprised that this has happened, he says, but he doesn’t understand why I wouldn’t have mentioned such news to the rest of the defendants. I want to explain how I’ve been consumed by my own fears, but I am barely able to mumble, “Sorry, I know I should have said something.”
He looks at me with what feels like distrust and contempt.
I am a coward. The history nerd in me cannot help but think about all the times when the government has targeted political activists. I think about the deportation of Emma Goldman, the murder of the Haymarket martyrs, the bombing of the MOVE home, the attacks on the American Indian Movement and the relentless spying and harassment of Dr. King.
I have always hoped, as we all do after reading stories like this, that if I were ever put in a similar position I would not flinch. Instead I feel ashamed, not of something I have said or something I have done—I never consider, even for a moment, becoming an informant—but ashamed that any of this has affected me.
Here I sit, a twenty-two-year-old white heterosexual American male, the most privileged of the privileged, turned inside out because of a class C misdemeanor and a knock on the door.
Here I sit. Afraid.
I do not know it right now, but this experience will mark the beginning of both a personal and a political journey. After the initial fear subsides, I will become obsessed with finding out why I would be targeted as a terrorist for doing nothing more than leafleting.
It will lead me to a New Jersey courthouse where activists stand accused of animal enterprise terrorism, to Congress where I’ll testify against eco-terrorism legislation, and to a green gas station outside Eugene with Daniel McGowan.
I will realize that, although I cannot undo this arrest and I cannot negotiate with those FBI agents, I can choose my role in the script before me.
This is an edited extract from Green Is the New Red: An Insider’s Account of a Social Movement Under Siege by Will Potter. Published by City Lights. Reproduced here with the publisher’s permission.
Will Potter is an award-winning independent journalist based in Washington, DC, who has become a leading authority on “eco-terrorism,” the environmental and animal rights movements, and civil liberties post 9/11.
He has tracked how lawmakers and corporations have labeled animal rights and environmental activists as “eco-terrorists.” And he has closely followed the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, the Earth Liberation Front arrests in “Operation Backfire,” and the landmark First Amendment case of the SHAC 7.
He has written for publications including: The Chicago Tribune, The Dallas Morning News, The Vermont Law Review, Legal Affairs, The Chronicle of Higher Education, In These Times, The Texas Observer, The Washington City Paper, Z and Counterpunch. His work has been circulated widely on political websites, and has appeared in Opposing Viewpoints (Greenhaven Press, 2006), Punishing Protest (National Lawyer’s Guild, 2007), Censored ’08 (Seven Stories Press, 2007), and course materials for universities.
He created the news service GreenIsTheNewRed.com, where he reports on the Green Scare and history repeating itself.
His reporting on the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act has been recognized by Project Censored “for outstanding investigative journalism,” as one of the top 25 “stories that didn’t make the news” in 2007. He has also received the Mark of Excellence award for feature writing, presented by the Society of Professional Journalists, in addition to recognition from Scripps Howard, Lantern Books and the Press Club of Dallas.
Will frequently ghostwrites op-ed columns for public figures—including a former U.S. president, members of Congress and a former assistant defense secretary—on civil liberties issues like the Patriot Act. They have appeared in publications including USA Today, The Washington Times and The Orlando Sentinel.