Will Potter’s extraordinary 2011 book Green is the New Red: An Insider’s Account of a Social Movement Under Siege was assigned as this month’s selection for the Denver Progressive Book club, of which I am a participant. His subject is environmental activism. It describes how political activists, specifically, animal rights activists, have come to be pursued and prosecuted within the U.S. legal system as “domestic terrorists.” It is a carefully documented, well written, at times painful, yet very necessary book.
Many sincere citizens who are passionately committed to protecting the environment on behalf of the public good have chosen to commit aggressive acts of civil disobedience. Federal, state, and local governments too often regard these activists as disloyal, un-American, even treasonous, and accuse them of threatening the fiber and framework of the American way of life in very much the same way Joseph McCarthy and the McCarthyites of the 1950s viewed Communism as a threat to democracy. Most have been rewarded with inordinately long jail sentences for acts involving property damage only.
Prior to reading the book I had only a passing knowledge of the animal rights movement. I was influenced by the popular media’s vastly exaggerated narrative, wherein animal rights activists are treated in the mainstream news as deranged idealists who pursue for no good reason misguided, dangerous, and illegal methods for drawing attention to the abusive treatment of animals in scientific research centers and on industry farms. Mr. Potter balances the narrative and acts as a moral compass in examining all sides of the issues.
The book surprised me. I did not expect to find such a thorough and informative exposé into the animal rights movement and the nature of the forces opposed to it. Potter challenges the very words “domestic terrorism” as formulating a dangerously contrived definition by federal and state law enforcement agencies, acting all too often as it were on behalf of powerful corporations, their lobbyists, and at the behest of organizations such as ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), to be used as an enormously overreaching tool for legal intimation in clamping down on activists who commit acts of civil disobedience in the name of animal rights. Potter neither overtly defends nor rejects the activists and their methods. Rather he describes their personal stories, explains their philosophies and examines the nuanced motivations within the various activist movements vis-à-vis the powerful, very often all too pervasive police state. On a broader level he puts into perspective our very American beliefs about who we are as a people, and as a nation, and he opens the discussion about what exactly should and does constitute a democratic society.
In light of the latest revelations about the vast overreach of the Unites States’ surveillance apparatus, this book is an important addition to the discussion and a very necessary examination of the government’s constitutional obligation to defend and protect the rights of its citizen to commit acts of civil disobedience in the name of the greater good, allowing them to make their private convictions matters of public concern.
Bill Ayers, co-founder of the Weather Underground, aptly describes the book as follows: [it is] “part history, part memoir, Green is the New Red plunges us into the wild, unruly, and entirely inspirational world of extreme environmental activism…his discussion of ‘terrorism’ as myth and symbol is the finest I’ve ever read.”