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TED2014

Will Potter: The shocking move to criminalize nonviolent protest

March 17, 2014

In 2002, investigative journalist and TED Fellow Will Potter took a break from his regular beat, writing about shootings and murders for the Chicago Tribune. He went to help a local group campaigning against animal testing: "I thought it would be a safe way to do something positive," he says. Instead, he was arrested, and so began his ongoing journey into a world in which peaceful protest is branded as terrorism.

Will Potter - Investigative journalist
Award-winning journalist and author, Will Potter focuses on the animal rights and environmental movements, and civil liberties in the post-9/11 era. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
It was less than a year after September 11,
00:12
and I was at the Chicago Tribune
00:14
writing about shootings and murders,
00:16
and it was leaving me feeling
00:18
pretty dark and depressed.
00:19
I had done some activism in college,
00:21
so I decided to help a local group
00:23
hang door knockers against animal testing.
00:24
I thought it would be a safe way
00:27
to do something positive,
00:29
but of course I have the absolute worst luck ever,
00:31
and we were all arrested.
00:33
Police took this blurry photo of me
00:35
holding leaflets as evidence.
00:38
My charges were dismissed,
00:41
but a few weeks later,
00:43
two FBI agents knocked on my door,
00:44
and they told me that unless I helped them
00:46
by spying on protest groups,
00:48
they would put me on a domestic terrorist list.
00:50
I'd love to tell you that I didn't flinch,
00:54
but I was terrified,
00:56
and when my fear subsided,
00:58
I became obsessed with finding out
01:00
how this happened,
01:01
how animal rights and environmental activists
01:03
who have never injured anyone
01:05
could become the FBI's number one
01:07
domestic terrorism threat.
01:09
A few years later, I was invited to testify
01:12
before Congress about my reporting,
01:14
and I told lawmakers that, while everybody
01:17
is talking about going green,
01:18
some people are risking their lives
01:20
to defend forests and to stop oil pipelines.
01:21
They're physically putting their bodies on the line
01:25
between the whalers' harpoons and the whales.
01:27
These are everyday people,
01:30
like these protesters in Italy
01:32
who spontaneously climbed over
01:34
barbed wire fences to rescue beagles
01:36
from animal testing.
01:38
And these movements have been incredibly effective
01:40
and popular,
01:43
so in 1985, their opponents made up a new word,
01:45
eco-terrorist,
01:49
to shift how we view them.
01:50
They just made it up.
01:53
Now these companies have backed new laws
01:54
like the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act,
01:57
which turns activism into terrorism
02:00
if it causes a loss of profits.
02:02
Now most people never even heard about this law,
02:05
including members of Congress.
02:08
Less than one percent were in the room
02:10
when it passed the House.
02:12
The rest were outside at a new memorial.
02:14
They were praising Dr. King
02:17
as his style of activism was branded as terrorism
02:19
if done in the name of animals or the environment.
02:22
Supporters say laws like this are needed
02:26
for the extremists:
02:28
the vandals, the arsonists, the radicals.
02:30
But right now, companies like TransCanada
02:33
are briefing police in presentations like this one
02:35
about how to prosecute nonviolent protesters
02:38
as terrorists.
02:41
The FBI's training documents on eco-terrorism
02:43
are not about violence,
02:47
they're about public relations.
02:48
Today, in multiple countries,
02:51
corporations are pushing new laws
02:53
that make it illegal to photograph
02:54
animal cruelty on their farms.
02:56
The latest was in Idaho just two weeks ago,
02:59
and today we released a lawsuit
03:02
challenging it as unconstitutional
03:04
as a threat to journalism.
03:05
The first of these ag-gag prosecutions,
03:08
as they're called,
03:10
was a young woman named Amy Meyer,
03:12
and Amy saw a sick cow being moved
03:13
by a bulldozer outside of a slaughterhouse
03:15
as she was on the public street.
03:17
And Amy did what any of us would:
03:20
She filmed it.
03:22
When I found out about her story, I wrote about it,
03:24
and within 24 hours, it created such an uproar
03:27
that the prosecutors just dropped all the charges.
03:30
But apparently, even exposing stuff like that
03:33
is a threat.
03:35
Through the Freedom of Information Act,
03:37
I learned that the counter-terrorism unit
03:39
has been monitoring my articles
03:40
and speeches like this one.
03:42
They even included this nice
little write-up of my book.
03:45
They described it as "compelling and well-written."
03:47
(Applause)
03:50
Blurb on the next book, right?
03:55
The point of all of this is to make us afraid,
03:58
but as a journalist, I have an unwavering faith
04:02
in the power of education.
04:04
Our best weapon is sunlight.
04:05
Dostoevsky wrote that the whole work of man
04:09
is to prove he's a man and not a piano key.
04:11
Over and over throughout history,
04:14
people in power have used fear
04:16
to silence the truth and to silence dissent.
04:18
It's time we strike a new note.
04:22
Thank you.
04:24
(Applause)
04:26

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Will Potter - Investigative journalist
Award-winning journalist and author, Will Potter focuses on the animal rights and environmental movements, and civil liberties in the post-9/11 era.

Why you should listen

Independent journalist and TED Fellow Will Potter is based in Washington, D.C.; his current work examines how whistleblowers and non-violent protesters are being treated as terrorists.

The author of Green Is The New Red: An Insider's Account of a Social Movement Under Siege, Potter has extensively documented how non-violent protest is slowly being criminalized. His reporting and commentary have been featured in the world's top media outlets, including the Washington Post, NPR, Rolling Stone, El Pais, and Le Monde. He has testified before the U.S. Congress about his reporting, as the only witness opposing the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act -- and he is a plaintiff in the first lawsuits challenging so-called "ag-gag" laws as unconstitutional.

Will has also lectured at many universities and public forums about his work, including Georgetown University, Harvard Law School, and the House of Democracy and Human Rights in Berlin. International speaking tours have included Germany, Austria, Switzerland, New Zealand, and Spain, and he was the international guest lecturer for Australia's 2014 animal law lecture series.

His reporting has overturned criminal prosecutions, and it has both been praised in Congressional reports and monitored by the Counter-Terrorism Unit.

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