To Be a Domestic Terrorist, Hug an Animal

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Was the shooter at the Louisiana movie theatre a domestic terrorist?  What about the man who killed four marines and a sailor in Chattanooga, Tennessee?  While the debate about the motives of the people responsible for these heinous acts continue, there’s no ambiguity about who the FBI and DOJ consider domestic terrorists: animal activists. Joseph Buddenberg and Nicole Kissane were arrested on July 24 and each was charged with one count of Conspiracy to Violate the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA).

According to the indictment, the pair allegedly took cross-country road trips to release about 6,000 mink from farms, and vandalized the homes and businesses of people connected with the fur industry.  The FBI says they posted about their exploits on websites associated with “animal rights extremists.” If convicted, they each face a maximum of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. (They have a court appearance in Oakland on July 28) “The conduct alleged here, sneaking around at night, stealing property and vandalizing homes and businesses with acid, glue, and chemicals, is a form of domestic terrorism and can’t be permitted to continue,” U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy said in a statement about the arrests.

But setting animals free, while in violation of the law, and posting about it online hardly constitutes an act of terrorism.  And isn’t the DOJ equating destruction of property and “sneaking around at night” with terrorism an insult to people who have experienced the devastating consequences of a terrorist attack, at home or abroad? Under AETA, anyone who damages the property or the profit line of an animal business and who uses “interstate commerce” such as a cellphone or the internet to carry out the action can be convicted of terrorism even though no violence is involved. The law is written, however, in such a broad manner that lawful activists simply speaking out can be labeled as “terrorists.” Disturbingly, the language used in AETA covers many First Amendment activities, such as picketing, boycotts and organizing undercover investigations if they “interfere” with an animal enterprise by causing a loss of profits. So in effect, AETA silences the peaceful and lawful protest activities of animal, food and environmental advocates.

Even in the post-9/11 climate of legislative over-reach and knee jerk decisions to security threats, how could such a controversial bill become law? Pushed in large part by heavy lobbying from the fur and farming industries, the Senate passed the law by Unanimous Consent, a special “fast-track” procedure that is supposed to be reserved for less contentious bills, in lieu of an actual vote.  A similar procedure was used to ram it through the House with one member voicing strong concerns that the bill is “written in such a way as to have a chilling effect on the exercise of the constitutional rights of protest.”  George W. Bush signed AETA into law in November 2006.

It is not known how many people have been prosecuted under AETA. The first prosecution in 2008 was of four Californian animal rights activists, including Buddenberg and three others who were charged as terrorists for chalking a sidewalk and chanting outside the homes of biomedical scientists who had conducted animal testing.  The charges were later dismissed. Journalist and author Will Potter has written extensively about the organized effort by the authorities to stifle free speech and protest under AETA.  Last year, the FBI arrested two activists on federal terrorism charges for allegedly releasing 2,000 mink and foxes from fur farms in the Midwest.  One of those activists, Tyler Lang agreed to a plea deal this week and now faces a maximum of 5 years in prison and the possibility of hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.  The other man will be sentenced on November 5. Activists charge that the timing of these arrests, shortly before the largest annual animal rights conference, is designed to intimidate them. Read Glenn Greenwald’s analysis here.