Saturday, November 23, 2013

“If they want to watch, let’s give them something to watch.”

Will Potter wrote last week at Mother Jones about MIT doctoral student Ryan Shapiro:
According to the Justice Department, this tattooed activist-turned-academic is the FBI's ‘most prolific’ Freedom of Information Act requester—filing, during one period in 2011, upward of two documents requests a day. In the course of his doctoral work, which examines how the FBI monitors and investigates protesters, Shapiro has developed a novel, legal, and highly effective approach to mining the agency's records. Which is why the government is petitioning the United States District Court in Washington, DC, to prevent the release of 350,000 pages of documents he's after.
It’s a fascinating article, which also links to a short video of an appearance by Shapiro at the Animal Rights National Conference last year.

He talks about some of the documents he’s obtained revealing the FBI’s operations at that very event. I’ve transcribed what follows (with a few ellipses), both because I think it’s inspiring and because his analysis is solid. In response to the FBI’s spying and attempts to disrupt the movement, he advises,
at this conference, we should be as open and as welcoming as possible. It’s important to remember that the FBI wants us divided. It wants us to be suspicious of each other… The FBI is explicitly interested in spreading false rumors about good activists being agents, so that we don’t trust them, about newcomers being snitches, so that we don’t let them in the movement. So that we’re divided. So that we can’t grow as a movement.

So yes, if the FBI shows up at your doorstep, shut your mouth.* But at this conference we should have open arms for everyone. And honestly, if the FBI wants to hear about the horrors of factory farming, let them hear. If the FBI wants to read vegan literature, let them read. And if the FBI wants Josh Balk’s new business card to find out where he’s working now, he’s more than happy to give it to them. I spoke to him last night.

So, if suspicion isn’t the lesson that we should draw from these documents, what is? I’d suggest that what these documents speak to is the true historical significance of this conference in particular and of the animal rights movement more broadly. Clearly, the FBI believes so. Along these lines, as a quick aside, in my FOIA lawsuit against the FBI, the FBI just this week asked the court for a seven year delay in processing any of my Freedom of Information Act requests because, they argue, my academic research itself constitutes a threat to national security. Yes, just asking questions now about the FBI’s understanding and handling of the animal rights movement is now understood as a security threat. Clearly, they are taking this movement seriously. And even more illuminative is the fact that the FBI is here at this conference, every year, year after year, wasting their time, wasting their money,** going through our trash. I mean, it really just speaks to how seriously they take us, how truly significant we are.

And in this context, I think it’s important to remember that the FBI first became especially interested in investigating this conference based on information provided by the animal industry groups – AMP, FBR,... These groups know better than anyone just how important we truly are. These groups know better than anyone what kind of a threat we truly pose. A threat to their bottom lines, to their abilities to do business as usual, their ability to continue torturing animals for profit. These groups are running scared, and they’re running to the FBI. That’s what the FBI is doing here.

So, if there’s a lesson to be learned from these documents, I think it’s this: Let’s live up to how important the FBI and the animal abuse industries believe us to be. Let’s live up to how threatening they fear we can become. Not in terms of some animal rights terrorist bogeyman that they’ve concocted, but as a powerful social movement advocating for justice, compassion, and liberation for all sentient beings. If there’s a lesson to be gained from these documents, it’s that we need to be as united, dedicated, and effective as our opponents dread. Let’s use the presence here of the FBI as a reminder to get out there and truly kick ass for animals. Because, honestly, if they want to watch, let’s give them something to watch.
It’s often said that these agencies are wasting resources pursuing and harassing the animal rights and other justice movements instead of the truly violent and terroristic people and groups who genuinely pose a threat to people’s lives and freedoms. And this is true to the extent that threats of this sort are their concern. At the same time, though, they are concerned – consciously or not – with the perpetuation of the status quo: of white male supremacy, religious privilege, and corporate power. Their targeting of civil rights, gay rights, women’s rights, indigenous rights, nonhuman animal rights, workers’ rights, migrants’ rights, consumers’ rights, electronic freedom and privacy, anti-imperial, environmental, peace, and other activists and movements; trade-deal protesters; whistleblowers; lawyers; scientists; writers; journalists; artists;… hasn't been a silly diversion from their “real mission.” It’s part of the fabric of their operations, and reflects a recognition of the real threat these people pose to the powerful. Not, as Shapiro notes, the threat of the “terrorist bogeyman,” but the promise of change - from a society based on violence, exploitation, and greed to one founded on democracy, respect, and the fulfillment of needs.

* I feel compelled to supply this tag and this post in particular as a PSA.

** It’s not actually their money, but public money.

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