Last year, we were lucky enough to have the brilliant Will Potter on our podcast. Will is the author of the book Green Is the New Red: An Insider’s Account of a Social Movement Under Siege, and the force behind the prolific blog of the same name. This book is on our shortlist of the most important pieces of non-fiction you will ever read, and so when writer Jennifer Molidor approached us about writing a review for Our Hen House, we were thrilled. We are honored to welcome Jennifer to our flock as a guest reviewer today, and excited for you to have the opportunity to read her take on this life-changing book.
Book Review: “Green Is the New Red: An Insider’s Account of a Social Movement Under Siege” by Will Potter
Review by Jennifer Molidor, Ph.D
A call to action can come when least expected. I first met Will Potter while reporting on the recent Animal Law Conference at Lewis and Clark’s Center for Animal Law Studies (CALS), where I also met Mariann and Jasmin. Potter’s talk on the “Ag-gag Laws: Suppressing Speech and Activism” panel opened my eyes to the shadowy world of subversive governmental tactics against nonviolent activists.
His book Green Is the New Red: An Insider’s Account of a Social Movement Under Siege (City Lights Publishers, 2011) is part memoir, part thriller, and part window into the lives of nonviolent activists who stand against monstrous forces of opposition. It chronicles Potter’s experience as a young reporter questioned by the FBI for leafleting in a suburban Chicago neighborhood, his later testimony before Congress, and his entrance into the inner world of those prosecuted as terrorists for creating an informational website. It is a tribute to Potter’s journalistic integrity that his story measures a fine balance between objective journalism and narrative storytelling.
All of us involved in animal advocacy who value the freedoms granted by the First Amendment have a stake in the revelations found in this book. Potter explains the history of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA), its origins in the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) – a front for corporate lobbyists – and the corporate sponsorship that ensured its passage. With ALEC’s help, the legislature’s focus shifted from controversial social issues such as abortion to a legislative agenda more beneficial to corporate interests. This agenda included labeling animal activists as “the number one domestic terrorist threat.”
As Potter explained in his interviews with Our Hen House and the Animal Legal Defense Fund, ALEC’s model terrorism bill was copied by a dozen state legislatures. And much is gained by comparing this anti-green culture with the Red Scare of the 1940s and 1950s. By creating a paranoid culture with terrorist rhetoric, AETA, the federal culmination of these state efforts, aims to inhibit animal activism, including the undercover investigations that reveal the systematic abuse of animals on factory farms. Other actions AETA supposedly targets – such as releasing animals from research labs and fur farms – were not only illegal already, they were also covered by the Animal Enterprise Protection Act of 1992 (AEPA). Regardless of the actual potential applications of this vaguely worded law, the true menace is a legal concept called the “chilling effect.” A law doesn’t have to directly ban constitutionally protected activity; it simply has to make people afraid to do anything at all.
Through the book’s portrayal of an insider’s account behind the scenes, we vicariously experience what it feels like to be publicly labeled as a terrorist for trying to protect animals. It is a riveting tale of intrigue, counterterrorism, and the darkest worlds of animal cruelty. Potter recounts his experience of the criminal prosecution of fellow activists and how he balanced the tension between his duties as a journalist, activist, and friend. In his words, the reader can feel his quiet anguish as he watches those around him worry about their lives and livelihoods. It would be a best-selling work of fiction. But sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.
Potter’s is the kind of writing that delights literary scholars. I dog-eared many a page simply for the beauty of his prose, like his description of an activist with “shadows sewn to his heels.” The rich tenor of Potter’s journalistic voice is tangibly present in his words. One of the most poignant moments comes when Potter crosscuts between the tale of the sneaky passage of AETA (railroaded through Congress as a noncontroversial bill, despite intense opposition) with descriptions of puffed-up politicians celebrating the civil rights movement at the groundbreaking for the new MLK memorial. Dr. King, who could have been prosecuted as a terrorist under AETA, was celebrated on that day by the very politicians pushing forward terrorist-loaded rhetoric. Potter writes, “Everyone is willing to become a radical in hindsight.”
Where do these notions of terrorism and extremism come from? The animal and environmental movements threaten corporate interests, but also something even deeper – the long-held belief in human dominance and the American way of life. Potter’s book shows that at stake in these movements is the very definition of what it means to be human. Not simply content to make our impact upon animals and the earth merely less traumatic, the animal rights and environmental movements seek to challenge core beliefs about our place in the natural universe.
With piercing insight, Potter’s book calls us all to action for the greater good. For more about his book and work, go to his excellent website at Green Is the New Red.
Jennifer Molidor earned her PhD in English and Irish Studies from the University of Notre Dame. Her academic work focuses on the politics of sexualized violence against female activists, storytellers, and writers in Ireland. A vegetarian for 15 years and a vegan for two months, Jennifer started her life as an animal activist when she was a child. Failing her biology class as a straight-A student because she refused to dissect a frog, Jennifer learned the callousness of the adult world. Later, she brought her companion animal to convalescent hospitals in a pet-assisted therapy program, and led the charge in fundraising campaigns for local humane animal shelters. She has also been a certified victim’s advocate at Sexual Offense Services, volunteering to help victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. For five years she has been an English professor at Kansas State University, she once taught a course called “The Politics of Food” for freshman writing students at the University of Notre Dame, and she is currently the staff writer at the Animal Legal Defense Fund.