Around 50 people gathered in the Vandenberg Room of the Michigan League on Thursday for the Communication Studies Department’s annual Howard R. Marsh Lecture in Journalism, delivered this year by investigative journalist Will Potter.
Potter’s talk, titled “From Protester to Terrorist: The Mechanisms of State Repression,” highlighted his own career as a journalist and the ways he discovered the United States government systematically discredits activist movements in order to protect corporate interests.
He said he became obsessed with investigating the FBI’s tactics after he was arrested for hanging leaflets against animal testing on doors. The FBI then offered him career help in exchange for becoming an informant.
“Two FBI agents came to my home, and they knew all about where I worked, and how my dad had to cosign for our apartment at the time because I didn’t have enough money, and I had a Fulbright (scholarship) pending, and my girlfriend at the time had some Ph.D. funding, and they said they could make all this go away, unless I helped them by spying on protest groups,” he said. “And they made a point of emphasizing you know, you have this upward career trajectory, you’re doing everything right, just make it all easier on yourself, or you’re going to be put on a domestic terrorist list. It scared the daylights out of me.”
The majority of Potter’s talk was spent breaking down his “10 easy steps to turn protesters into terrorists”: using the power of language, waging media campaigns, holding government hearings, dividing, conducting surveillance, advocating for disproportionate sentences, creating informants, passing laws against dissent, creating special prisons and expanding to the mainstream.
Many of the laws criminalizing dissent, Potter pointed out, were passed without the knowledge of many people, including lawmakers. To pass the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, which makes causing a loss of profits to an animal enterprise an act of terrorism, Congress used an obscure procedure called “suspension of the rules” to get the bill through with the minimum oversight possible.
“This is how a lot of bills get moved through that are ostensibly non-controversial,” Potter said. “That same week, the same procedure was used to honor the St. Louis Cardinals for winning the World Series. Then it was used to pass the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. There were only six members of Congress in the room. The rest were on the National Mall breaking ground on a new memorial honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”
Information master’s student Jay Choi said he appreciated being exposed to an issue he wouldn’t otherwise have been aware of as a non-communications student.
“I actually didn’t give it too much thought before I came here, but I was really surprised at the content of the actual lecture and some of the issues that journalists are facing,” he said. “It’s not every day that students from different departments get exposed to such events and trends in other industries so this really helps expand those horizons for students, in my opinion.”
At the end of the talk, Potter warned repression was an issue that applied to more than just environmentalists, saying the power of the state was especially dangerous under President Donald Trump’s administration.
“Now of course I lied in my BuzzFeed listicle presentation here, that there’s not just 10 steps to how all this happens,” he said. “The most important point is that there’s this unspoken final step to repeat the entire thing over again against different political groups. Right now, the main target has been environmentalist groups. But even if you don’t care about the environment, this still affects everyone in this room.”
LSA sophomore Lena Dreves said she thought Potter’s remarks were something everyone needed to hear.
“I thought he really put it together really well, and that needs to be known by people on campus, and, if possible, people need to read his book because it’s really well-written,” Dreves said. “I really liked how he said the way that they’re constructing this certain dynamic with environmentalists, they can do with any social group. I thought that was a very important piece of information.”