People usually laugh when I tell them I am a convicted terrorist. I try not to open with that it seems a little bit forward. First, I explain how my friend Tyler and I entered a fur farm in the dead of night. I describe the unspeakable suffering we found there. I tell people how Tyler and I opened every single cage and released 2,000 mink to save their lives. And once they have the context, I segue into the terrorism thing.
Now that I have been out of prison for more than a year, I can be a bit more lighthearted about it. But the seventh circuit court of appeals doesn’t see the humor. Last Wednesday, the court upheld the constitutionality of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, the federal statute that put me away for three years and that my lawyers at the Center for Constitutional Rights have been trying to challenge for nearly a decade.
The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act is a piece of designer legislation written and paid for by the agriculture and pharmaceutical industries. It federalizes non-violent property crime and punishes it as terrorism but only when the perpetrators are motivated by the belief that animals deserve to live free from violence. The court explicitly stated that the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act did not apply to four Fresno, California, teenagers who sneaked into a Foster Farms facility and bludgeoned 900 chickens to death with a golf club because “they killed the chickens for no reason”.
Put succinctly, I am a terrorist not because of what I did, but because the government dislikes why I did it. I remember organizing my first protest, outside of the circus, in 2005. I was 19 years old. My friend and I argued with the police about whether our group could stand on a courtyard by the Staples Center and whether we could use megaphones. We asserted our rights, and we were successful.
That same year, the FBI declared animal rights activists to be the nation’s “number one domestic terrorism threat”. A year later, Congress passed the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. Suddenly, I found myself being followed as I drove to work. My parents and siblings were harassed. My home was raided by the Joint Terrorism Task Force. Three times. We no longer argued with the police about where we could chant and hold our signs. The police brandished assault rifles, and we did as they said. Then, when we were done, they openly followed us back to our cars to photograph our license plates. While the rest of the nation took no notice, simply organizing a protest became a frightening prospect if you were an animal rights activist.
In this atmosphere, more and more of my friends stopped speaking out for animals. Countless times I heard people say they were scared of being placed on a list. More than once, someone told me they had canceled their subscriptions to animal-related magazines. The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act achieved its intended outcome. When the distinguishing feature of a “terrorist” is simply an ethical concern for animals, such concerns become marginalized, and voicing them becomes dangerous. What remains is silence.
Now I watch as the rhetoric honed and the precedents established against animal rights activists are expanded to cover an increasingly broad swath of dissent. In Donald Trump’s America, states across the country are introducing legislation designed to bully and deter protesters. Some of these proposed laws include five-year prison sentences for protesters who block traffic.
Lawmakers in Arizona seek to charge protest groups as organized criminals, and seize their assets. In Oregon, a statute would automatically expel students who violate protest laws. Missouri wants to criminalize the use of costumes during protests. And, following the horrors of Charlottesville, lawmakers in half a dozen states have introduced legislation to indemnify drivers who run over protesters, as if the drivers were the ones in need of protection.
This is not how a free society operates. Our rights are meaningless if the government intimidates us out of using them. But as Wednesday’s decision makes clear, the judiciary will not protect us from such abuse. The court has legitimized the government’s use of the word “terrorism” to describe nearly any activity of which it disapproves and emboldened lawmakers around the country who are beginning to do just that. It is evident that our leaders consider our speech and assembly a threat to their unencumbered exercise of power. Now, more than ever, we must show them that they are right.