Must Be Doing Something Right: Smash HLS, GE Trees, “Burglary Tools” and the Growing Threat of State Repression

by Grayson Flory / Earth First! Newswire

Photo from a previous Smash HLS protest

Photo from a previous Smash HLS protest

On October 30 I was arrested outside of Miami with eight others at an animal rights protest put on by Smash HLS. Fifty miles away, in Boca Raton, Florida, a group touring the South giving presentations on genetically engineered trees learned that the FBI had called the college at which they were presenting, in what seems like an attempt to stop the event. The group had recently been banned from the University of Florida for trying to give the same presentation.

Because the Smash HLS trial and investigation are still ongoing I cannot speak to what happened that day in very much detail. In fact, because of a vague “stay away” order from the judge I’m not even certain whether I can mention the company that the protest was targeting.

I can say that I was protesting at a facility to bring attention to issues of animal abuse and exploitation, when suddenly an individual from the facility began acting in a way that was extremely dangerous, putting my life and the lives of other protesters at serious risk—I was terrified, and believed that if I did not do something to stop them this person would kill one or more of us. One second I am trying to survive, acting on a moral imperative to protect myself and others from harm, and the next second I’m surrounded on all sides by unmarked cars and plain clothes cops—Florida Department of Law Enforcement and Department of Homeland Security—aiming their hostility and their weapons at me and the other protesters.

The officers came from every direction, blocking all roads simultaneously, and immediately made statements implying that they had been hiding and watching us, and had even videotaped the entire encounter. I don’t know whether this is true—I tend not to put much faith in the statements of cops. But, if I’m to believe what they shouted at me while I was being slammed to the ground, kneed in the back and handcuffed, then it would appear as if they secretly observed us in a very dangerous situation and did nothing to intervene. I am also compelled to believe that they had a hand in purposely escalating the event. Otherwise, what were nearly a dozen Homeland Security and FDLE officers hiding and waiting for? This protest and protests like it happen regularly, with no arrests or other incidents like what occurred that day, so what were they there to videotape? One of the detectives noted at my bond hearing that their presence at this event was part of an ongoing investigation into Smash HLS, so it would appear—again, if we are to believe the cops—that they knowingly risked our safety in order to gather evidence for an investigation into an animal rights protest group.

The activists involved received charges ranging from disorderly conduct and criminal mischief to assault and launching a “deadly missile.” The total bail amount added up to over $31,000. Police have made statements claiming that protesters “attacked” a vehicle coming out of the facility being protested, and the prosecutor claims that we collectively caused over a thousand dollars in damage to the vehicle. Many of the police and prosecutor statements run contrary to my experience and the experiences of many of the protesters involved, who have a different understanding of what actually occurred. Of course, the police version of events was the only one presented to the judge, and the only one that can be safely made public until the trials are finished.

In the bond hearing, the prosecutor claimed that I was a “member” of Smash HLS, despite the fact that this was the first Smash HLS event I had attended and that the day of the incident was the first time I had met many of the individuals with whom I would share cuffs and jail cells over the next day and a half. This claim was used to convince the judge to enforce a “stay away” order, potentially barring me from talking about, protesting or organizing against the company whose activities we were demonstrating against. (I say “potentially” because the language of the order, which I never received in writing, is purposely vague, causing my public defender, the prosecutor and the judge to argue over its stipulations in court while I watched silently.)

This is not an isolated incident, or an extreme case, but part of a pattern of growing federal and state repression of animal rights and environmental activists in this country. The government is hell-bent on squashing the people’s mounting concerns over rampant environmental destruction and animal exploitation, as well as the groups and individuals willing to fight back against it, regardless of how peaceful and legal the activities of such activists are. Thanks to information gathered from Stratfor and TransCanada, as well as the recent Snowden leak regarding NSA spying and PRISM, we know that more than ever before the government and corporations are working hand-in-hand to target and eliminate activists, while law enforcement officers to protect the illegal and destructive practices of those corporations.

The relationship between law enforcement and corporations was clear to anyone who heard about the repression faced last week by the Genetically Engineered Tree Roadshow presenting “The Growing Threat: Genetically Engineered Trees and the Future of Forests.” This is a group of activists from the Global Justice Ecology Project (GJEP) and Everglades Earth First! (EEF!) who are touring the South giving presentations on the dangers of genetically engineered (GE) trees. They are not protesting, are not involved in any civil disobedience activities; they are simply informing those who wish to listen about this dangerous new practice taking place in our own backyards, and the questionable science behind it.

This didn’t stop the state from intervening when the group arrived at the University of Florida on October 26, where they were scheduled to give a presentation. The University of Florida has received millions of dollars in grants from the government to conduct research into GE trees, and thus has a strong interest in silencing all opposition to such research. At the UF campus, presenters and others with them were met by a group of police who told them that the presentation had been canceled, threatened the presenters with arrests if they did not leave the property, and banned all the individuals in the group from UF campus for three years. Much like in my case, some of the individuals banned from the campus that day were there to attend their first such event, yet were immediately identified as members of a particular group.

"The Growing Threat," a zine distributed at GE Tree Roadshow presentations

“The Growing Threat,” a zine distributed at GE Tree Roadshow presentations

But that wasn’t the end of it. On October 30, the day of the Smash HLS protest that led to our nine arrests, the GE Tree Roadshow was slated to give a presentation to students at Palm Beach State College in Boca Raton, Florida, only about an hour away from our protest. Campus Provost Dr. Bernadette M. Russel came to the presentation before it began and asked the student organizer from the PBSC Environmental Conservation Club to go outside and speak with her. When the student returned, she said that the provost claimed to have been contacted by the FBI, who informed her that the presentation was taking place, and who told the provost that the presenters were known to be disruptive. The provost reportedly told the student that she must get permission before inviting the presenters or their groups to campus again. A security guard was then posted outside of the room for the duration of the presentation.

Police, the FBI, and universities used their time and resources to fight an educational roadshow practicing free speech activity at universities to which they were personally invited by students and professors. But that’s the pattern that the government is making very clear. They do not target groups or individuals because of what they do, but rather because of who they know and what they believe. The GE Tree Roadshow was targeted because they were spreading a message that runs counter to the researchers, corporations, universities and government agencies that stand to profit from genetic engineering. They simply do not want the public to hear both sides of the story.

There were a lot of parallels the day of the Smash HLS arrests in Miami and the GE Tree incident at Palm Beach State College. On my way to the Smash protest a few activists and I stopped at a grocery store in Boca Raton where we happened to run into the GE Tree presenters in the parking lot. They were on their way to give that day’s planned presentation at the college. Some of us knew each other from previous social interactions and campaigns, but as we waved goodbye, none of us knew that the government was already coordinating attacks against both events we were heading off toward.

I was attending that day’s Smash HLS demonstration in part so I could pass out fliers about Tyler Lang and Kevin Olliff, two animal rights activists from Los Angeles who are being held in Woodford County Jail in rural Illinois and are charged with “possession of burglary tools.” The fliers encouraged people to spread the word about their mistreatment at the hands of the jail, which was not allowing them access to books, a move which Kevin had been protesting with a hunger strike for over a week. Police at the Smash HLS protest arrested me before I was able to pass out the fliers. When my bag was finally returned, the stack of fliers had been removed and replaced with a pair of latex gloves. Thankfully, the book ban at Woodford County Jail was finally lifted while I was being held in Miami-Dade County jail, and Kevin was able to end his hunger strike.

The absurdity of complaining about my treatment at the hands of the police while attempting to pass out fliers for Kevin and Tyler never escaped me. While the bail for all nine of us arrested at the Smash HLS event totaled over $31,000, Tyler alone was slapped with a $100,000 bail, and Kevin’s was $200,000. The bails seem to be a reaction not to what Kevin and Tyler did—especially since every one of the “burglary tools” allegedly in their possession is legal to possess—but to who they know and what they believe.

Kevin Olliff and Tyler Lang

Kevin Olliff and Tyler Lang

This is made evident not just by the high bails, or by their inhumane treatment in the jail once it was discovered that they were animal rights activists (treatment which included, at certain points, a refusal to provide medical consultations or adequate food, a removal of their access to email, the ban on books, and for Kevin, threats of force feeding), but also by the FBI’s involvement in the case. Even though neither Tyler nor Kevin are charged with doing anything that had to do with their animal rights activities, it was reported on October 22, only eight days before the Smash HLS protest, that the FBI has been questioning friends of Kevin and Tyler in Los Angeles, and even threatening some of these friends with prosecution for perjury. Clearly the state’s goal is not simply to punish Kevin and Tyler for supposedly breaking a law, but to fracture and intimidate activist communities in general.

In all of the incidents I’ve mentioned, no one has yet been convicted of a crime. The jail time, fines, interrogations and unjust treatment have taken place without anyone being found guilty of anything. And with good reason. The government knows that it is often very much full of shit. One of the activists arrested with me at the Smash HLS protest had already been arrested four times while demonstrating with the group, and charged with multiple crimes in most of the arrests, but in each case the charges were dropped. He has never been found guilty. Yet he has served jail time, been mistreated and threatened, and had to pay fines for bail and for time spent in custody. Law enforcement does all it can to damage activist communities while it still has the upper hand—before the trial process, while it can punish without evidence. And so we spend our time and our few resources raising money to protect people that, for all we know, will soon be found innocent, or who just want to give a presentation to an audience that wants to listen.

But of course, this doesn’t stop us. On November 1, the day that I got out of jail, I attended the last GE Tree Roadshow presentation in Florida, at the Quaker Meeting House in Lake Worth. It was very good, and not quite what I would call disruptive. There was a slide show, a few short videos, zines passed out, and an engaging discussion afterward. Audience members were shocked when they were told that this presentation had been banned at UF. Keith Brunner from GJEP, one of the presenters in the GE Tree Roadshow, indicated that all this could be a sign that activists are making a real impact. “State surveillance and repression of resistance movements is nothing new, and I believe we can expect to see more of it as our movements against oppression and domination grow stronger and more effective.”

It isn’t anything new, just another incident. The Green Scare wasn’t very long ago. And Jerry Koch is still incarcerated in New York in a Grand Jury investigation for refusing to talk about who he knows and what he believes. What happened at the Smash HLS protest is barely a blip on the radar. But it was a reality check for me personally. No matter how safe and responsible I am myself, I cannot predict or control what the government will do when they feel their agenda is being threatened. But with so much mistreatment and repression, and with non-violent activists serving long-term sentences, it’s nice to see that it’s not just the activists who are scared.

A huge thank you to everyone who donated to the Smash HLS bail fund. Because of you we were able to get everyone out of jail. We still have legal fees ahead of us, and every bit helps. You can donate to the Smash HLS legal fund here.

You can sign the Global Justice Ecology Project’s petition to stop GE Trees here, and find out more about GE Trees here.

Though the Woodford County Jail book ban has been lifted, Kevin and Tyler would still love to receive letters of support. Write to them, or send them books:

Kevin Johnson #4565
Woodford County Jail
111 E Court St.
Eureka, IL 61530

Tyler Lang #4564
Woodford County Jail
111 E Court St.
Eureka, IL 61530

Grayson is a member of the editorial collective of the Earth First! Journal and Newswire. He can be reached at rabbit[at]earthfirstjournal[dot]org. The Earth First! Journal is currently raising funds for magazine printing costs. If you appreciated reading this, please consider subscribing or donating here.

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