I re­leased 2,000 minks from a fur farm. Now I'm a con­victed ter­ror­ist

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion / The Guardian View - Kevin John­son

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 light-hearted 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 non­vi­o­lent 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 whyI 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 an­i­mal­re­lated 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.

Kevin John­son is a Los An­ge­les, Cal­i­for­nia, ac­tivist and speaker

‘‘I am a ter­ror­ist not be­cause of what I did, but be­cause the gov­ern­ment dis­likes whyI did it.’ Pho­to­graph: Vik­tor Drachev/AFP/ Getty Images

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