Sympathizing with (Leftist) Terrorists?
By Jake Blumgart, Campus Progress
Posted on April 30, 2009, Printed on May 18, 2013
(This article originally appeared on Campus Progress)
In a controversial mid-April memo (PDF), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) warned that right-wing extremist groups were on the rise, their numbers bolstered by the crashing economy.
But little has been said about the accompanying left-wing memo, which warns of potential cyber and property attacks from left-wing extremists. Unlike the right-wing report, which isn't specific about potential threats, the left-wing memo names names. Groups that qualify for inclusion in the memo were "leftwing groups within the animal rights, environmental, and anarchist extremist movements that promote or have conducted criminal or terrorist activities."
By definition terrorism is the use of intimidation and coercion for political ends, frightening others into behaving as you want them to behave. Below, we have examined four of the eight groups profiled in the DHS memo. You can determine for yourself which ones lean terrorist and which ones are just your typical radical leftists.
Earth Liberation Front (ELF)
Active in the United States since the late 1990s, ELF isn't so much an organization as a banner adopted by environmental activists willing to embrace the movement's use of aggressive "direct action." And unlike some of the other groups named in the memo, by direct action ELF means blowing shit up. Their chosen methods include arson, bombing and vandalism targeting new housing developments, SUV fleets, and other manifestations of "environmentally destructive policies."
"First and foremost, the ELF is designed to inflict maximum economic damage on industries and governments that are involved with environmentally destructive practices and policies," said Lisa Nesbitt, press officer for the North American Earth Liberation Front Press Office, an agency that publicizes ELF activities, in an email interview. ELF uses economic sabotage to make the companies "rethink their destructive practices and policies."
ELF may feel comfortable with their tactics, but others don't have such confidence. "How can you be sure that property destruction won't turn into human destruction?" asked American historian Kevin Mattson, who studies radical protests in the 1960s and wrote the book Rebels All!. "The Weather Underground said they'd only go after banks and government buildings, but they ended up killing people. I think there is a legitimate concern for the government to worry about this kind of vigilante action."
The anarchist informational collective CrimethInc is a nebulous group of "shoplifters, rioters, dropouts, deserters, adulterers, vandals, daydreamers" who want to "take the world back." Their website is slick, with no acknowledged authors, and a skimpy contact list "so as to avoid obvious problems with the authorities."
The collective's members see revolution as a way of life rather than a plan to overthrow the government, but they do comment on and encourage criminal activity. The website recently featured a critique of the tactics of Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty and Animal Liberation Front (ALF), groups that also made DHS's memo. The two groups' tactics have included coercion through fire-bombing and arson. The CrimethInc article analyzed whether the tactics could be appropriately applied to other campaigns, without actively discouraging such extremist behavior. "What distinguishes anarchists from governments and other terrorists, if not the refusal to countenance collateral damage?" the article's anonymous author asked.
This may make them seem more terrorist than not, but "CrimethInc is a propaganda group, they disseminate revolutionary ideas," said David Graeber, ex-Yale professor who regularly writes about the anarchist movement. "CrimethInc folks are mostly dumpster diving, living in squats kind of people. It's about as ridiculous as thinking of hobos in the 1920s as a threat to the nation. Some of them are high-tech hobos, but they aren't about storm the White House. ... They are a collective of people who write stuff, not a collective of people who do stuff."
Founded in preparation for the national conventions last summer, the radical activist coalition Recreate '68 was "created for all the grassroots people who are tired of being sold out by the Democratic Party." Their very name, coupled with a specific focus on the Democratic National Conference, evoked the riots and police brutality that marred the Chicago DNC in 1968. The founders of Recreate '68 assert that the name was meant to reflect the powerful movements of the sixties that pressured the Democratic Party from the left, not the violence that stunted them. "We don't call ourselves 'Re-create Chicago '68,'" Mark Cohen, one of the group's founders, assured Politico.
The group has repeatedly issued statements declaring their commitment to "peaceful and nonviolent demonstrations." But the carefully worded statement of non-violence on their website leaves some wiggle room, "We are resolved that our group will not instigate violence against human beings as a means to end this system of violence and injustice."
"We believe in a diversity of tactics. In all honesty, nothing is off the table for us," said Glenn Spagnuolo, one of Recreate '68's co-founders. "But we are also very realistic and we know that we are in a place in society right now where the best weapon is non-violent tactics. If we tried to do anything else it would be revolutionary suicide."
To date, the extent of the organization's activities seem to have been organizing the rallies and marches around the DNC last summer, which were both under attended and subdued save for a rambunctious police presence. No one in the group, as far as Spagnuolo knows, has ever been arrested for anything more serious than civil disobedience.
The Ruckus Society
The Ruckus Society is a government registered non-profit that trains activists in non-violent direct action. The camps where they train dedicated activists in civil disobedience tactics have captured the imagination of conservative critics. Ruckus graduates were a visible presence during the "Battle in Seattle," prompting arch-lobbyist Richard Berman to accuse them of fomenting the riots. "The Ruckus Society trains young activists in...techniques [which] result in property crimes of enormous financial cost," Berman reported in a 2002 testimony before Congress. Berman didn't provide any evidence that made his claims credible.
In recent years Ruckus has branched out from its roots in the environmental movement to focus on the empowerment of marginalized communities. "The work we do is supporting the most environmentally and economically impacted communities," Ruckus Society executive director Adrienne Maree Brown said. "We train them in the tools and tactics they want to use to change their situation." (Brown spoke at the 2006 Campus Progress National Conference.) The Society has not condemned property destruction outright: "Violence to me is against living things," Ruckus's previous executive director said in an interview with Mother Jones. But they are committed to non-violence in their own trainings and do not advocate the use of violence.
The group's inclusion in the memo struck Graeber as particularly odd. "They are a non-profit that trains people in protest tactics, including some direct action, but their idea of direct action is banner-hangs," he said. "If you are going to put out a website that says, 'Hey, we are the Ruckus Society and here is how you can email us,' then you probably aren't going to be sneaking around at night setting fire to things."
Was the DHS memo on target?
There are very few people who want to jump in and defend those who hack into computers or smash windows in the name of the Revolution. Those who will not compromise cannot be bargained with, and if they turn to terrorist tactics, the federal government will inevitably get involved. But group like the Ruckus Society, who fight for single payer health-care and practice "civic engagement," albeit in an occasionally confrontational manner, should not be implicitly linked with fanatics who adopt ELF's ways of doing things.
"This is how criminalization of dissent works," said Brown and the Ruckus Network. "Name groups who are doing legitimate organizing work as threats, in an attempt to induce fear, instead of power, in communities."
It's true that there are dangerous left-wing extremists who pose a threat to others, and DHS is dealing with them as best they can. But groups that don't use violent tactics and have only ever been charged for offenses incurred during non-violent civil disobedience demonstrations should not be included in a widely circulated DHS memo. Radicalism is not extremism, and the kind of reasoning that mistakes one for the other will end up putting the names of peaceful activists on a terrorist watchlist. These are distinctions that are important to make.
Jake Blumgart is an editorial intern for Campus Progress.
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