On Monday, I wrote about the arrest of four animal rights activists on terrorism charges. The activists are the first to be targeted under a law called the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) that allows the federal government to label a broad range of activism as “terrorism.”
Journalist Will Potter has obtained a copy of the FBI complaint in the case, which raises further questions about the investigations. According to the complaint, the FBI spent time using video surveillance to track activists distributing leaflets, used Internet surveillance to track activists accessing publicly available information, and used DNA testing to confirm that a bandannas were worn by the activists. Moreover, the most serious act alleged by the government–an attempted “forced entry” at the home of an animal researcher–is not even blamed on the four arrested activists. Instead, they are simply accused of being present at the protest.
Possible Ramifications for Grand Rapids?
Back in 2005, MediaMouse.org published a number documents obtained by the Freedom of Information Act showed widespread surveillance of antiwar activists in Grand Rapids. The documents revealed–among other things–surveillance of websites like MediaMouse.org, the use of undercover officers at protests, and collaboration with Grand Valley State University (GVSU) to target protestors. The Grand Rapids Police Department (GRPD) also used undercover officers to infiltrate activist meetings. However, this didn’t die out with the decline of the antiwar movement–there have been reports from local activists that police infiltrated a meeting over the summer.
Such surveillance is disturbing in its own right, but if it was applied to animal rights activists, it could be used to target activists with “terrorism.” Well-known and well-organized activists who were effective–say in a campaign targeting a fur store with the goal of getting it to close–could be charged with “terrorism” for effecting the business’ profits.
Two Scenarios with Grand Rapids Ties
In recent years, Grand Rapids also has a rich history of activism, some of which has used confrontational tactics–for example leading an antiwar march to the home of Congressman Vern Ehlers. Under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, such a march–if it went to the home of someone connected to animal research–could be construed as “terrorism” because it might intimidate the target.
Another example could be the frequent protests held outside of circuses in Grand Rapids. Back in 2004, a group of activists smashed a door at the Van Andel Arena, vandalized other parts of the building, and defaced a circus train. In the California case, activists who are not accused of property destruction are being tied to two fire bombings against animal researchers simply because leaflets they produced allegedly encouraged such behavior. Under the new law, activists handing out leaflets at a circus in downtown–a completely legal activity–could have been swept into an investigation and possibly charged as terrorists, especially if they had done other legal activity–like demonstrate outside of a fur store–that had encouraged people not to shop there. Under the law, such activity would be “intimidating” and “harassing” and potentially threaten profits, thereby becoming “terrorism.”
These government attacks on activism and free speech affect everyone, not just animal rights activists. The techniques might be used currently to target animal rights activists, but they can easily be expanded in the future. U.S. history has shown that the state always has a keen interest in repressing activist movements and that it often develops techniques to target one group before moving onto another.