IF YOU GO
Who: Journalist Will Potter, a journalist from Washington, D.C.
What: Potter will discuss "The Criminalization of Dissent" about ethics, animals, First Amendment rights and democracy
When: Today at 6 p.m.
Where: Fourth Floor of the Chattanooga Public Library
The American animal industry is scared.
Scared that what they're trying desperately to hide will somehow be revealed.
"The creatures are encased row after row, 400- to 500-pound mammals trapped without relief inside iron crates seven feet long and 22 inches wide. They chew maniacally on bars and chains, as foraging animals will do when denied straw ... or else just lie there like broken beings ... They lie covered in their own urine and excrement, with broken legs from trying to escape or just to turn, covered with festering sores, tumors, ulcers, lesions," writes Matthew Scully, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, in his 2005 essay in The American Conservative.
One of the defining issues of this coming age will be the way we treat our animals. Not just our dogs and cats, but the pigs, cows and chickens we've industrialized as food.
"People would be really shocked to learn there is not one single federal law that protects farmed animals during their lives," said Will Potter.
Potter, a journalist from Washington D.C., is coming to Chattanooga today to speak about some of our most urgent issues: ethics, animals, First Amendment rights and democracy. His free talk -- "The Criminalization of Dissent" -- is being sponsored by several social justice and animal welfare groups and begins at 6 p.m. on the Fourth Floor of the Chattanooga Public Library.
"In terms of an entire industry that is raising and killing upward of 9 billion animals a year, there is virtually no oversight and no regulation," said Potter, a 2014 TED Fellow.
Potter's book, "Green is the New Red," equates the fear-based Red Scare of the 1940s and '50s to the way environmentalists are characterized today. Two points illustrate this.
First: the recent spread of "ag gag" legislation.
Across the country, legislators and lobbyists push for "ag gag" bills -- the American Legislative Exchange Council has a version it calls the "Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act" -- which provides immense protection to the animal industry while criminalizing whistleblowers and undercover investigators. Last year in Tennessee, the General Assembly passed a bill that would require anyone with evidence of animal abuse to hand it over to law enforcement within 48 hours of documentation.
After great public outcry, Gov. Bill Haslam vetoed it. The bill, which will probably resurface this year, directly opposes the long history -- from Sinclair Lewis to the Humane Society -- of investigations leading to social change and reform.
"These investigations have led to the largest meat recall in U.S. history. They've led to criminal prosecutions and led to a change in the national discussion about animal welfare and food safety," Potter said. "Without these investigations, this wouldn't be happening."
I know many small farmers in the area who welcome visitors with open arms. Their small ecosystem is maintained in humane, honest and natural ways. Hide it? They want to show it off, which is exactly the opposite response of the many corporations that feed us.
The second issue Potter's speaking about?
"How this rhetoric of terrorism is used against animal groups," he said.
In our post-9/11 world, few words are as emotionally reactive as this: terrorist. Yet instead of reserving the word for the worst of all crimes, a wider net is being cast, Potter said, as a tendency grows to label environmental groups as terrorist when they're anything but.
"When we start singling people out as terrorists engaging in nonviolent activities, that sets us down a dangerous path. It puts all our rights at risk," Potter said.
Environmental and animal rights groups exist under one very large tent, including the groups that may engage in property destruction (against laboratories engaged in what they consider animal cruelty, for example). Or spray-painting SUVs. Or breaking windows.
Yes, those are crimes ... but they're not terrorism. (The FBI reports eco-terrorism as one of its top domestic threats). No humans have ever been harmed in any eco-action, Potter said. And property destruction is not always unethical or immoral.
In fact, we herald such actions: like the Sons of Liberty, that 18th century activist group that plotted the Boston Tea Party.
"We all want to think we're part of a culture that values justice and fairness," Potter said. "It doesn't matter if you're a vegetarian or environmentalist, these things we're talking about cut to the heart of fairness in our legal system, accountability and people in power."
Contact David Cook at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.
David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...