When protesters become ‘terrorists’

Pub date March 24, 2009
WriterRebecca Bowe

› rebeccab@sfbg.com

When does passionate protest become a terrorist threat? Is it when activists choose to target someone’s house, or when the subject of the protest feels scared? Why single out animal rights activists for special treatment? And if the definition of terrorism is expanded for them, what group is next in these turbulent times?

These are the questions being raised by the federal prosecution of four local animal rights activists. Joseph Buddenberg, Maryam Khajavi, Nathan Pope, and Adriana Stumpo pleaded not guilty March 19 to charges of using threats and violence to interfere with University of California animal researchers, in violation of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA).

A coalition of civil liberties defense groups have come to their defense, arguing that the law is unconstitutional and that the activists were merely exercising their freedoms of speech and assembly.

AETA specifically protects research institutions, pharmaceutical companies, and other businesses that use animals from individuals who "interfere with" their operations. Anyone using threats, vandalism, property damage, trespassing, harassment, or intimidation to cause someone connected with an animal enterprise to have "reasonable fear of death or bodily injury" can be tried under the law. But critics say the statute is over-broad, arguing that legal activity like boycotts can be construed as a form of interfering with a business’ operations.

"In its abstract form, and now with these arrests, the AETA is a full frontal assault by the U.S. government on the First Amendment," says San Francisco-based attorney Ben Rosenfeld, a member of the National Lawyers Guild. "Everybody, whether they identify with animal rights causes or not, ought to be very alarmed."

According to an FBI affidavit filed by special agent Lisa Shaffer, the activists took part in actions targeting UC researchers who conduct experiments on animals. They didn’t free caged animals, torch laboratories, or slash tires. Instead the defendants were caught picketing, chanting, and creating flyers. And while the complaint cites an alleged assault, it never states that any of the four defendants was responsible. Yet they each face up to five years in prison.

In October 2007, the complaint alleges, the defendants joined a group of protesters outside a UC researcher’s home in El Cerrito where they marched, chanted things like "vivisectors go to hell!" and rang the doorbell. The second incident took place in January 2008, when a group of about a dozen people "wearing bandanas over their nose and mouth" allegedly drove to a number of researchers’ homes in the East Bay. They "marched, chanted, and chalked defamatory comments on the public sidewalks in front of the residences."

The complaint says UC researchers felt harassed, intimidated, and terrified. Heidi Boghosian, executive director of the National Lawyers Guild in New York City, says AETA is flawed in that prosecutions are based on the targets’ reactions, not the protesters’ intent. "Basing prosecutions on the subjective feelings of individuals to whom no harm was inflicted undermines the foundation of criminal law, which punishes those who commit crimes with the intent to do so," Boghosian told us. "Demonstrating — even noisy, angry demonstrating that may be uncomfortable to others — is still protected under the First Amendment."

During the third incident, six bandana-clad protesters allegedly approached the home of a UC Santa Cruz researcher. Her husband heard banging on the glass pane of the door, opened it, and then "struggled with one individual and was hit with a dark, firm object," according to the complaint. The protesters dispersed, and one allegedly yelled, "We’re gonna get you!" Santa Cruz police later seized a vehicle belonging to one of the activists. Bandanas found inside the car were later sampled for DNA, linking them with three of the defendants.

The complaint doesn’t indicate whether any of the four defendants struck the researcher’s husband or yelled a threat. But that hardly matters. "Another flaw of the AETA is its ‘course of conduct’ language," Boghosian said. "If one protester commits a single unlawful act at a protest … but five others were present, all may be charged with engaging in a course of conduct that interferes or attempts to interfere with the operations of an animal enterprise."

Finally, the FBI charges that in July 2008, a stack of flyers listing the home addresses of two UC professors under the headline "murderers and torturers" was discovered at a Santa Cruz cafe. The FBI tapped security camera footage and Internet use logs to link three of the defendants to the stack of flyers.

Several days after the flyers were discovered, a firebombing took place at one of those researchers’ homes — but the federal complaint doesn’t mention it. When asked if there might be a connection, FBI special agent Joseph Shadler told the Guardian that the complaint speaks for itself.

Several civil liberties groups have been wary of AETA since it was enacted. "The law is so overly broad and so vague that no one knows what’s legal and illegal," Odette Wilkins, who is pushing for a repeal of the bill through her organization, the Maryland-based Equal Justice Alliance, told us. "The USA Patriot Act makes it very, very clear what terrorism is. It’s anything that causes mass destruction … or places the entire civilian population in fear. I don’t see how people exercising their First Amendment rights … rises to the level of terrorism. It’s ludicrous."

FBI special agent Schadler sees it differently. "As far as the distinction between free speech protected by the Constitution and what we would consider terrorism, whenever somebody’s purpose is to cause fear to get their point across, that’s terrorism," he told the Guardian. "The definition of terrorism is using threat of violence, or violence, to accomplish a political means. And the threat of violence — when you are actually going out and threatening to hurt people, or causing people to believe that they’re going to be hurt, or actually hurting them to get your movement or your political voice heard — then you are committing terrorism."

Lauren Regan, executive director of the Eugene, Ore.-based Civil Liberties Defense Center, helped create Coalition to Abolish the AETA. "We were working on putting together a civil lawsuit simply challenging the constitutionality of the law when the criminal indictments happened," she explained.

Regan has been on the case since a previous law, the Animal Enterprise Protection Act, was in place. That statute was upgraded to the AETA in 2006 in the wake of aggressive tactics employed by a radical animal rights group, Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC). "Many felt [the AEPA] was also unnecessary," she told us. "Because there are already statutes for burglary, theft, vandalism, arson [etc]. Any of the crimes that could have fallen within the AEPA were already federal and state crimes."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein cosponsored AETA along with Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), saying it would "ensure that eco-terrorists do not impede important medical progress in California." Before the bill passed, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) voiced the lone complaint against it. "I am not for anyone … damaging another person’s property or person. But I am for protecting the First Amendment and not creating a special class of violations for a specific type of protest."

No one else was persuaded. The bill was bundled with other legislation deemed to be noncontroversial then passed by voice vote. The American Civil Liberties Union didn’t oppose it after an amendment was added guaranteeing that it wouldn’t restrict First Amendment rights. The ACLU declined to comment for this story.

Regan says broadening the definition of terrorism can stifle important campaigns. She points to the example of a widely publicized video released by the Humane Society last year that showed disturbing footage of downed cows at a beef processing facility. Though it spurred one of the largest beef recalls in history (and saved school kids from consuming an unsafe meat product), the cameraperson could be tried as a terrorist under the AETA, Regan says, because it was necessary to trespass to shoot the film.

She also criticizes the FBI’s excessive use of paid informants. "This has happened across the country — if someone posts a vegan potluck, the FBI is showing up to see who’s there and what they’re doing," she says. Between 1993 and 2003, the FBI’s counterterrorism division increased 224 percent, according to its Web site.

While advocates are quick to point out that there are no documented deaths associated with animal rights activism, the movement has a history of employing firebombs, threatening phone calls, and other creepy tactics in pressing to end animal cruelty — a trend that led to the passage of the domestic terrorism bill.

"The AETA has backfired, causing an increase in underground activism," says Los Angeles-based activist Jerry Vlasak, whose inflammatory language against animal researchers was quoted extensively during the 2006 Congressional hearing on AETA. Vlasak is a media contact for the North American Animal Liberation Press Office, which operates a Web site featuring anonymous "communiqués" sent in by clandestine activists. In a posting dated March 6, a group called the Animal Liberation Brigade takes credit for burning the car of a Los Angeles primate researcher. "We will come for you when you least expect it and do a lot more damanage [sic] than to your property," the message reads. "Where ever you go and what ever you do we’ll be watching you as long as you continue to do your disgusting experiments on monkeys. And a special message for the FBI, the more legit activists you fuck with the more it inspires us since wer’re [sic] the people whom you least suspect and when we hit we hit hard."

Will Potter, a Washington, D.C.journalist who runs a Web site called Green Is The New Red, testified before Congress prior to the passage of the AETA, arguing that the law would not deter underground activists. Instead he predicts it will have a chilling effect on protests staged in broad daylight. "This legislation will … risk painting legal activity and nonviolent civil disobedience with the same broad brush as illegal activists," he said.

That, says Rosenfeld, is precisely what’s happened. "The whole underpinning of a democratic society is that it’s rights-based, and government power is limited and checked by law," he says. "Here we have a complete perversion of that process. The government gives itself this over-broad, sweeping power to go after anyone it wants and then seeks to reassure people that it will only use those laws against the real bad guys."