Will Potter on Resistance, Power Structures and the Value of Social Movements

Investigative journalist and author Will Potter was the featured guest on Tim “Sole” Holland’s podcast titled Solecast recently. Potter discussed how the animal rights movement has evolved through the years, his journalist beginnings, his experience with activism, FBI encounters, and the value of challenging power systems.

You can subscribe to Solecast here, and download the episode here.

Regarding the evolution of the animal rights movement and repression against the movement, Potter explained that many topics that used to be on the margins of the movement are now being ushered into more mainstream discussions. For example, conversations on animal rights and environmental degradation are now being discussed in broader contexts along with the environmental consequences of factory farming. At the same time, Potter acknowledged the counter resistance of state entities and corporations such as Pfizer and Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey who lobbied for laws such as the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA), which can brand animal rights activists as domestic terrorists and chill free speech.

Potter’s journalist career began when he started working at the Dallas Morning News when he was 16. Throughout college he had participated in activism but it hadn’t coincided with his journalism until he began working for the Chicago Tribune. “I was covering shootings and murders and breaking news,” Potter continued, “I felt like I was doing nothing good.” Potter went on to explain that he wanted to find a way to incorporate activism and journalism, which led him to go leafleting for the Stop Hunting Animal Cruelty (SHAC) campaign. “The campaign had been really successful; it nearly bankrupted this testing facility,” Potter stated. “Undercover investigations showed workers punching Beagle dogs in the face and dissecting live monkeys.”

As described in his book Green is the New Red: An Insider’s Account of a Social Movement Under Siege and his Ted Talk, Potter was arrested for leafleting and was soon visited by the FBI who threatened to label him a domestic terrorist if he did not become an informant on activists and infiltrate animal rights groups. Potter explained that this experience inspired him begin investigative reporting on political dissent, animal rights activism, and surveillance.

When questioned if people in power feel threatened by increased resistance, Potter stated, “When I was researching for my book, I found a quote by the historian Richard Hofstadter who talks about the paranoid nature of American politics, how power structures are always in a state of paranoia about themselves being threatened and I think that’s part of what’s going on and I think the environmental crisis plays into that as well. It’s not a secret and even CIA planning and Department of Defense planning look at the ecological crisis that is continuing to grow and see that in terms of national security, social unrest, domestic and international problems.”

Regarding the promise of social movements, Potter cited the Occupy Wall Street movement and the potential uprisings have to destabilize and bring discussions to mainstream media platforms. “Occupy completely changed the popular discussion about class and economics in this country in a very short amount of time; it is absolutely incredible. The fact that we went from having zero discussion about class on mainstream media outlets to talking about this idea of the 1% on CCN, MSNBC daily is a groundbreaking thing and it reflects the potential of thosemovements to really tap into the way people feel,” Potter said.

The dynamic of music and political activism was discussed by Potter who explained the influence Hardcore music had on his political foundation. Potter explained that music exposed him to political issues and is essential towards growing social movements, “it is an environment to take chances and to communicate raw emotions,” which is a way to build communities and support subcultures. “Some bands are able to translate complex political ideas into an entry point for young people,” Potter stated. “In a nutshell, that’s the most important thing; it’s having that entry point saying ‘it’s okay to engage in these issues, it’s okay to think and talk about this and to be angry and it legitimizes these feelings.'”

Potter discussed his crowdsourced campaign to deploy drones over factory farms to surveil animal conditions and the environmental impacts of factory farming. “The project was really motivated by these new laws called ‘ag-gag’ that make it illegal to take photographs or video of factory farms and that passed in a half a dozen states,” Potter said. The interview concluded with Potter discussing creative resistance to power structures stating, “The most important thing is to remember that all of this is happening because people have been incredibly effective at doing this work and the reason that the state or corporations keep coming up with these new laws or new powers is because they are adapting to that. What that means for us is we need to remember that all of this is very fluid and in a lot of ways this is going to be a constant. This idea of government and corporate repression will always be there; there will always be that push back and it’s going to fluctuate based on how effective these social movements are.”