The FBI on Friday announced the arrests in Oakland of two animal rights activists, Joseph Buddenberg and Nicole Kissane, and accused the pair of engaging in “domestic terrorism.” This comes less than a month after the FBI director said he does not consider Charleston Church murderer Dylann Roof a “terrorist.” The activists’ alleged crimes: “They released thousands of minks from farms around the country and vandalized various properties.” That’s it. Now they’re being prosecuted and explicitly vilified as “terrorists,” facing 10-year prison terms.

Buddenberg and Kissane are scheduled to appear this morning in a federal court in San Francisco for a hearing on bail conditions, while arraignment is set for early September. The indictment comes just days before the scheduled start of the Animal Rights National Conference, the largest and most important annual gathering of activists. The DOJ did exactly the same thing in July of last year: Shortly before the start of the 2014 conference, they arrested two activists on federal “terrorism” charges for freeing minks and foxes from a fur farm. The multiple activists and lawyers who spoke to The Intercept since Friday’s arrests are adamant that these well-timed indictments are designed to intimidate activists at the conference and more broadly to chill campaigns to defend animal rights.

This latest federal prosecution, and the public branding of these two activists as “domestic terrorists,” highlights the strikingly severe targeting over many years by the U.S. government of nonviolent animal and environmental rights activists. The more one delves into what is being done here — the extreme abuse of the criminal law to stifle nonviolent political protest or even just pure political speech, undertaken with tragically little attention — the more appalling it becomes. There are numerous cases of animal rights activists, several of whom spoke to The Intercept, who weren’t even accused of harming people or property, but who were nonetheless sent to federal prison for years.

One obvious and significant reason for the U.S. government’s fixation is that the industries most threatened by this activism are uncontrollably powerful in Washington, virtually owning the Congress without opposition, stacking the relevant agencies with their revolving-door cronies. Another is that this movement is driven by hard-core believers impressively willing to sacrifice their own liberty in defense of their political values — namely, trying to stop the mass torture and gratuitous slaughter of animals — and that frightens both industry and its government servants; that animal rights as a cause is gaining traction worldwide makes the threat even more alarming.

Yet another reason is that the specific forms of activism this movement has cultivated are shrewd and compelling: As is true for so many types of violence, the savagery, torture and sadism that makes these industries so profitable will be collectively tolerated only if we are not forced to confront their reality. That, for instance, is why the Obama DOJ is so desperately fighting the release of torture and Guantanamo photos, and why it has so severely punished whistleblowers: because few things are more menacing to status quo interests than truth revealed in its most visceral form.

While some E.U. countries have severely regulated or even banned many of the animal abuses targeted by activists, the U.S. factory farms that produce furs are among the cruelest and most sadistic anywhere, imposing extreme amounts of suffering and torture on the animals they slaughter — both in terms of how they confine them and then kill them. The very graphic photo here shows the carcasses of minks after they have been skinned; this deeply disturbing undercover video from PETA details their treatment at American fur factories:

Independent of the moral questions raised by this savage treatment of animals, these industrial practices spawn serious environmental degradation, exploit small farmers, and produce health risks for workers: practices that can remain undisturbed only as long as we remain blissfully unaware of the harms they cause.

But there’s something deeper driving this persecution. American elites are typically willing to tolerate political protest as long as it remains constrained, controlled, and fundamentally respectful of the rules imposed by institutions of authority — i.e., as long as it remains neutered and impotent. When protest movements adhere to those constraints, they are not only often ineffective, but more so, they can unwittingly serve as a false testament to the freedom of the political process and the generosity of its rulers (they let us speak out: see, we’re free!). That kind of marginal, modest “protest” often ends up strengthening the process it believes it is subverting.

When, by contrast, a movement transgresses those limitations and starts to become effective in impeding the injustices it targets — particularly when preserving those injustices is valuable to the most powerful — that’s when it has to be stopped at all costs, including criminalizing it with the harshest possible legal weapons. This is the dynamic that explains the emerging campaign in the West to literally criminalize the previously marginalized BDS movement designed to stop Israeli occupation: It’s gaining too much ground, becoming too effective, and thus must be banned, its proponents and leaders threatened with prosecution. The fear that the animal rights movement is growing stronger and will succeed in exposing the horrifying realities of these industries’ practices is driving the persecution to the point of declaring it to be — and formally punishing it as — terrorism.

Even beyond that, the animal rights movement strikes at the heart of what is most cherished by American elites: the pillars of unrestrained capitalistic entitlement. That so much industrial profit depends upon extreme, constant torture and slaughter of animals is something regarded as, in essence, a sacred right.

Lauren Gazolla, who was imprisoned for 40 months in 2004 for her nonviolent animal rights activism and now works at the Center for Constitutional Rights, said that this movement “strikes at something fundamental. It challenges a way of life: So much of how much we live our lives is based on massive violence against animals, and the more brutal these industries are, the more profit they make.”

Anything that targets or threatens this entitlement is regarded as the highest and most severe threat. That’s why the government, at the behest of the industry interests it serves, is calling it “terrorism”: to them, few things are genuinely more menacing or threatening than an effective political movement aimed at these practices.

A systematic effort to convert animal rights activism into terrorism

The activists arrested on Friday are being charged under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA), a draconian 2006 federal law heavily lobbied for by the agriculture, pharmaceutical and farming industries. Its drafting and enactment was led by the notorious and powerful American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), with the lobbying industries also hiding behind groups such as the Animal Enterprise Protection Coalition (AEPC) and the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF).

As is typical for lobbyist and industry-supported bills, the AETA passed with overwhelming bipartisan support (its two prime Senate sponsors were James Inhofe, R-Okla., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.) and then was signed into law by George W. Bush. This “terrorism” law is violated if one “intentionally damages or causes the loss of any real or personal property (including animals or records) used by an animal enterprise . . . for the purpose of damaging or interfering with” its operations. If you do that — and note that only “damage to property” but not to humans is required — then you are guilty of “domestic terrorism” under the law.

Prior to the 2006 enactment of the AETA, animal rights activism that damaged property was already illegal under a 1992 federal law, as well as various state laws, and subject to severe punishments. The primary purpose of the new 2006 law was to expand the scope of criminal offenses to include plainly protected forms of political protest, and to heighten the legal punishments and intensify social condemnation by literally labeling animal-rights activists as “domestic terrorists.”

At the same time as this draconian statute was signed into law, numerous states enacted so-called “ag-gag” laws that — amazingly — “prohibit workers from taking undercover videos at the facilities and impose fines or jail time for those who do.” Moreover, “roughly half a dozen states have passed laws in recent years to prevent workers from taking images or videos of agricultural facilities.” They’re so desperate to conceal their savage conduct from the public that they’re literally criminalizing reporting and whistleblowing, so that those who enable vital (and horrific and hard-to-watch) videos like this one — showing incomprehensible cruelty to highly intelligent and emotionally advanced pigs — are subject to prosecution:

For a barbaric industry, nothing is more threatening than the truth. As the Wall Street Journal explained in May: “In 2008, a California meat company recalled 143 million pounds of beef — the largest beef recall in U.S. history — after the Humane Society of the United States distributed an undercover video showing workers kicking sick cows and using forklifts to get them on their feet. The condition of the cows suggested their meat could have posed a risk to consumers.”

That case was the result of an undercover investigation at the Hallmark Meat Packing Co. in Chino, which, in the words of the Humane Society, showed “slaughter plant workers displaying complete disregard for the pain and misery they inflicted as they repeatedly attempted to force ‘downed’ animals onto their feet and into the human food chain.” Because the cows were too sick to walk, they were dragged or pushed with hot prods into the slaughterhouse. Some of that food made its way into the National Lunch Program served to public school students.

In other words, cows that were too sick even to walk, because of their savage mistreatment, were being put into the human food chain. This was discovered only because an undercover video revealed it:

Is it any wonder that these industries are demanding that such reporting and exposure be outlawed? And is it hard to see why the brave activists bringing these truths to light and trying to stop them are regarded as criminals and even “terrorists” for doing so?

Targeting core political speech

This latest case shows how extreme and oppressive this law is by design. No human beings were physically injured by the alleged activism of Buddenberg and Kissane, nor did they attempt to harm any. Whatever one thinks of their tactics, it was — even by the FBI’s telling — confined to property damage: essentially vandalism. In its Press Releases announcing indictments, the FBI tries to depict the alleged acts in the worst, most inflammatory light possible; for this case, this is all it could muster: They “used paint, paint stripper, a super glue-type substance, butyric acid, muriatic acid and glass etchant to vandalize Furs by Graf, a retail furrier located in San Diego.” There is absolutely no commonly understood meaning of “terrorism” (to the extent such a thing exists) that can include anything they did.

Ben Rosenfeld, a lawyer who has extensively represented animal and environmental activists, told The Intercept that “calling this terrorism is utterly irresponsible and offensive to victims of real terror.” Referring to both the DOJ and Congress, he said, “They should be ashamed of themselves.”

He added that in the post-9/11 era, “Calling this terrorism makes it almost impossible to get a fair trial for these activists. It’s very manipulative. Though the public is more jaded about the manipulative use of this term, it makes a huge impression on judges, most of whom have previously been prosecutors.” Because it’s in the title of the law, the term “terrorism” even appears on verdict forms, “so jurors see it very clearly.”

To label this nonviolent political protest “terrorism” yet again illustrates the utterly malleable and propagandistic nature of that term. This is particularly true given that the same DOJ that is charging the activists as “terrorists” just announced that Dylann Roof — who murdered nine people in a Charleston church to advance clear ideological and political objectives — will not be.

Even more abusive prosecutions — based exclusively on pure political speech and protest rights — have been common. Will Potter is likely the most knowledgeable journalist in the country on these issues; he’s author of a 2011 book entitled Green is the New Redand editor of a great website by the same name that exhaustively covers these issues.

Potter has a new story, published yesterday, on the arrest of four animal-rights activists in Oregon for . . . “allegedly writing political slogans on the public street using sidewalk chalk.” Potter reports that “the chalking was done as part of the growing ‘No New Animal Lab’ campaign, which aims to stop the construction of a new underground animal experimentation facility at the University of Washington.”

In 2004, Gazolla was prosecuted — and imprisoned in a federal penitentiary — for 40 months (three-and-a-half years) on charges that she and other activists maintained a website that endorsed illegal protests, and that her chants at a protest outside an executive’s house included advocacy of violence.

Her co-defendant was Andy Stepanian of Fitzgibbon Media, the communications firm that represents The Intercept and, on a pro bono basis, Chelsea Manning. Stepanian was imprisoned for three years, and during his incarceration, was even placed in a highly oppressive “Communications Management Unit,” called “GITMO North,” typically reserved for Muslims accused of terrorism. The FOIA-obtained prison document ordering his transfer tells the story (redactions in original):

As Gazolla detailed in a 2014 Salon article, the only conceivable purpose of calling activists like her “terrorists” under the new 2006 law is to stifle legitimate speech:

The AETA was pushed through Congress by the immensely powerful animal agriculture, animal testing and fur industries. The law is not limited to punishing illegal activity; numerous existing laws already punish vandalism, threats and other illegal forms of protest. Rather, the AETA provides special protection to a specific class of businesses by targeting and stigmatizing a particular group of protesters, hanging the specter of prosecution as “animal enterprise terrorists” over their heads, and ultimately scaring them into silence.

Indeed, the very first case prosecuted under the AETA was in 2009, and it included the same Joseph Buddenberg who was arrested on Friday, along with three other defendants. Industry officials and their lobbyists were furious that no prosecutions had been brought in the two years since its enactment, and were aggressively pressuring the DOJ to find a case.

As Potter reported at the time, the DOJ’s entire case, calling these activists “terrorists,” rested on their pure First Amendment activity such as chalking sidewalks, marching and chanting outside researchers’ homes, and distributing fliers. The following year, the indictments were dismissed by a federal judge on the ground that the DOJ failed even to allege with any specificity what they did that constituted a crime.

But the history since that dismissal makes clear that pure political speech and protest are the real targets of these “terrorism” prosecutions. Gazzola told The Intercept that the AETA succeeded for a time in its goal of weakening and chilling activism: “My prosecution scared people,” she said.

But both Gazzola and Potter echoed what numerous activists and lawyers said: that despite the government’s efforts, animal rights activism is stronger, and the cause more widely accepted, than ever before. Others noted that there’s also a growing right-wing faction to the movement and that it’s starting to cut across ideological lines in interesting ways. Gazzola said that “more and more people are speaking up more strongly now, and there is more support from the broader left and social justice attorneys. All of that has really helped the movement come back.”

Supporting activism, preventing abusive prosecutions

For years, animal rights activists worked without much support, even from the left, which generally regarded them as fringe and their cause as marginal (this post does a good job of laying that out). But all of the movement supporters interviewed by The Intercept are optimistic that, for a variety of revealing reasons, they have far more support than ever before.

Potter explained that the left’s aversion to animal rights activism was in part fueled by caricatures created by federal authorities. “They told the left, ‘don’t worry: we’re just going after these hard-core extremists, the ones who think you shouldn’t be able to go to circuses or wear leather shoes.'” That demonization made the left wary of being associated with a movement that had been successfully marginalized.

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Debra Reid/AP

Beyond that, he said, there’s a strong human incentive to avoid thinking about what is done to animals. Potter explained: “People don’t want to engage with these issues because it challenges the most fundamental assumptions about how we’ve structured our society. It makes people confront the assumption we’ve adopted that we, as humans, have the right to do anything we want to the planet and other species for any reason: clothes, food, entertainment, transportation. Once you engage with those issues, it can be a shocking confrontation with how you’ve been living your life for awhile. These activists are threatening not only corporate profit, but also the fundamental precept that humans are the center of the universe and have the right to do whatever they want.”

But activists point to a number of positive developments as evidence that animal rights is now becoming far more mainstream. There have been a few successful ballot initiatives to limit the worst abuses in agriculture. A single documentary on animal abuses at Sea World all but destroyed that company. Mainstream, influential figures advocate vegetarianism. The widespread availability of cheaper technology and access to the internet makes it far easier than ever to produce undercover videos and ensure widespread dissemination. Legal changes are, for the first time, recognizing pets and other animals as having emotional worth, beyond their value as “chattel.”

In sum, said Potter, we are collectively “expanding our circles of compassion, or at least consideration, in terms of the law and our moral framework.” For the first time in the U.S., it is now being recognized that “animals are worthy of moral consideration.”

But these changes, while positive, are limited, and far from what is needed to shield animal rights activism from vindictive prosecution and additional industry-fueled retribution. Potter used the term “greenwashing” to explain that “the Federal Government loves to tell you that it’s great for you to love the environment, but only if you do it in benign ways that don’t threaten industry.” You can and should recycle, but don’t impede lumber companies from cutting down trees or get in the way of whaling ships. Only “eco-terrorists” do that.

The same dynamic is at play in animal rights activism. We’re told that it’s great to love your pets. It’s fine to get outraged when some revolting, piggish Minnesota dentist — or the hideous spawn of Donald Trump — slaughter majestic animals in Africa for their own twisted pleasure or to compensate for their glaring sense of inadequacy. “But whatever you do,” said Potter, “don’t turn your gaze to the everyday behavior of America’s largest food companies and farming industries in order to shine a light on their wholesale torture and slaughter of animals.” No matter how much people have learned to love animals and regard them as possessing moral worth, that type of activism — effective and subversive of industry — is still radioactive.

That’s what most needs to change. The countless hours of interviews and reading I’ve now done has made me, for the first time, fully cognizant of the shocking amount of legal abuses being undertaken here. At the very least, the activists who are sacrificing their own liberty in order to protect animals from being tortured and slaughtered — activists who are often poor and thus vulnerable to most abusive prosecutions — deserve a vibrant legal defense.

A legal defense fund has now been created to ensure that both Buddenberg and Kissane have the funds needed to defend themselves. You can, and I hope will, donate to that here. Beyond that, both CCR and the Civil Liberties Defense Center have done stalwart work in fighting the pernicious efforts to equate this activism with “terrorism.”

The propagandistic exploitation of the term “terrorism” has produced a wide range of harms all over the globe. Few harms are as severe as its ongoing use not only to stifle, but outright criminalize, political speech and noble activism.