Criminalising civil disobedience

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The coining of the term eco-terrorism is credited by many to the Executive Director of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, Ron Arnold.

In the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the word 'terrorism' has become a potent political weapon. For years Arnold has blurred the boundaries between what constitutes civil disobedience and elevated vandalism to equal terrorism. The conflation of civil disobedience with terrorism is a calculated strategy.

Legislation using the cover of cracking down on 'eco-terrorism' - such as that currently being promoted by the American Legislative Exchange Council - is percolating its way through the legislatures of a number of U.S. states. While vandalism and criminal damage is already illegal, the attraction of such legislation is in defining "terrorism" so broadly as to ban civil disobedience.

One of the most potent tactics employed over the last twenty years in the environment movement has been through organising peaceful civil disobedience protests. Such protests often result in an issue gaining widespread media coverage prompting public discussion of important public issues and, in some cases, resulted in environmental victories.

Groups that have a high media profile also have the ability to successfully raise funds from appeals directly to millions of citizens. For the conservative movement, legislating against civil disobedience under the guise of cracking down on 'ecoterrorism' would dramatically reduce both the media profile and fundraising capacity of groups such as Greenpeace, the Rainforest Action Network and local grassroots groups.

What makes the possibility of such a legislative crackdown possible is the existence of groups - including Earth First! and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society - that have condoned or undertaken damage to property but have stated their opposition to violence against individuals. Vandalism has also been widely attributed to other more shadowy 'groups' such as the Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front.

For PR advisers to industry, the ability to portray the existence of at least some real environmentalists that support damage to property has been a boon.

In 1991 Greenpeace International was campaigning against the use of chlorine in the pulp and paper industries due to its toxic pollution problems. This campaign caused the huge US chlorine producer, Clorox to have the Public Relations division of Ketchum Communications draft a crisis management plan based on the assumption that Greenpeace would target the household use of chlorine.

In one of many scenarios canvassed, Ketchum pondered what to do in response to a hypothetical newspaper column calling for a boycott of Clorox products and Greenpeace pickets in front of supermarkets in 10 major cities. One component of a suggested action plan was "Industry association advertising campaign: 'Stop Environmental Terrorism' calling on Greenpeace and the columnist to be more responsible and less irrational in their approach".

In June 2001, the Frontiers of Freedom sponsored an "Eco-Terror" Conference, called "Eco-Terrorism & Extremism: The Costs Imposed on Americans," addressed by republicans, right-wing activists and wise use leaders, who were determined to try and make environmentalists the domestic public enemy number one, although this would change with September 11th. Speakers included Malcolm Wallop, Orrin Hatch, Congressman George Nethercutt, Ron Arnold from the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, Steven J. Milloy "the Junkman" and R. J. Smith from the Competitive Enterprise Institute. According to FoF: "the extreme environmental movement is endangering lives, harming the environment, killing jobs and economic opportunity, and costing taxpayers millions of dollars".

At the conference Wallop and Arnold singled out Rainforest Action Network, which was labelled "one of the biggest law-breakers." More important though was that Congressman George Nethercutt outlined plans for what was described as a "a full-out legal assault on so-called 'eco-terrorism', including a bill that would convey mandatory prison sentences for violence against environmental and life-sciences research".

More recently Marc Levin, a lawyer and president of the American Freedom Center seized upon a report by Public Interest Watch attacking Greenpeace. After reviewing a number of incidents of damage to property attributed to the Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front, Levin sought to smear Greenpeace with the ecoterrorism tag. "While these acts of ecoterror are clearly illegal, few people realize that the money used to commit many of these crimes may have been illegally laundered through tax-exempt organizations whose donors - individuals and nonprofit foundations unaware of the laundering - receive tax deductions," he wrote in the New Jersey Law Journal.

Levin flagged the move by the U.S. Department of Justice to sue Greenpeace for the April 2002 boarding of a cargo ship approaching Miami that was laden with timber from the Brazilian rainforests. Without skipping a beat, Levin conflated Greenpeace's peaceful protest with ecoterrorism, which, he argued, justified an IRS crackdown. "Prosecuting ecoterrorists has proved difficult; they have a "cell" structure and lack centralized leaderships or membership rosters. But this is precisely why it is critically important that the IRS does its part to immobilize ecoterror groups by investigating how moneys flow through tax-exempt organizations to affiliates," he wrote.

It is a theme echoed by Neil Hrab from the Competitive Enterprise Institute in an article published in the 2004 edition of Organization Trends, a publication of the conservative Capital Research Center. Hrab complained of groups undertaking direct action that "seldom are they threatened with loss of their nonprofit tax status unless an outside party undertakes a difficult and costly challenge". [1]

In Australia draft legislation defining charities sought to disqualify groups involved in civil disobedience from qualifying for tax deductibility. The Executive Director of the corporate funded think tank, the Institute of Public Affairs, Mike Nahan, was enthusiastic about the proposed changes, acknowledging that the disqualifying purposes "will threaten the charity status of several organisations".

"For example Greenpeace, which regularly engages in trespass and other breaches of the law, would have its charity status threatened by a requirement to not break the law," he wrote. [2] After an outcry from community groups the proposal has been shelved.

Government's have also used their broad discretionary powers in issung travel documents as a way of punishing advocates of civil disobedience. In September 2005 the Australian Government revoked the six-month visitors visa of Scott Parkin, an environmental and peace activist from the Houston Global Awareness Collective. Parkin was arrested, six weeks after he arrived in the country, on "character grounds" and imprisoned pending deportation. [3] Government officials refused to explain to Parkin or his lawyers the basis for re-assessing his status.

Australian Greens Senator Bob Brown suspects Parkin was arrested because of his campaigning against the military contractor Halliburton.[4] Two weeks ago Parkin spoke at a protest outside the Sydney office of KBR, a Halliburton subsidiary. [5] A barrister representing Parkin, Julian Burnside, has indicated he will lodge an appeal against his re-classification with the Migration Review Tribunal. "If all Mr Parkin has done to be assessed a security risk is to peacefully protest his opinions, then we are in serious trouble," Burnside said. [6]

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