Drone expert Steve Hindi asks Potter to account for $90,000
BOISE, CHICAGO, WASHINGTON D.C.––Which is the greater threat to animal advocacy: so-called ag-gag laws that seek to prevent animal advocates from videotaping routine cruelty in agribusiness, the much decried federal Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act of 2006 (AETA), or lack of transparency and accountability on the part of advocates themselves?
Ag-gag laws, adopted in eight states, failed their first constitutional test on August 3, 2015.
Overturning the Idaho ag-gag law just six months after Idaho governor C.L. “Butch” Otter signed it into effect, U.S. Chief Judge B. Lynn Winmill of the federal District of Idaho ruled in summary judgment that “The effect of the statute will be to suppress speech by undercover investigators and whistleblowers concerning topics of great public importance: the safety of the public food supply, the safety of agricultural workers, the treatment and health of farm animals, and the impact of business activities on the environment.”
“The State’s logic is perverse,” judge says
“The State’s logic [in defending the ag-gag law] is perverse,” Winmill added. “In essence the State says that (1) powerful industries deserve more government protection than smaller industries, and (2) the more attention and criticism an industry draws, the more the government should protect that industry from negative publicity or other harms. Protecting the private interests of a powerful industry, which produces the public’s food supply, against public scrutiny is not a legitimate government interest.”
The Animal Legal Defense Fund and co-plaintiffs are pursuing a similar case against the Utah ag-gag law, in effect since 2012 but not yet successfully prosecuted.
Amy Meyer, 25, was in February 2013 charged with the first alleged violation of the Utah ag-gag law, 11 days after Meyer used her cell phone while standing on a public sidewalk to document conditions at the Dale T. Smith & Sons Meat Packing Company in Draper. The case was dropped nine weeks later.
Four Farm Animal Rights Movement volunteers pursuing video documentation of Circle Four Farms pig trucking routes were in early January 2015 charged in a second possible test of the Utah ag-gag law, after accidentally driving on Circle Four property. The charges that the four had violated the ag-gag law were dropped soon after they were filed, but the defendants received citations for trespassing because they had entered a small state park without paying the entrance fee, defendant Bob Penney, 64, told ANIMALS 24-7.
No other prosecutions have been brought under the ag-gag laws of any state. AETA, now in effect for eight years, has figured in at least six plea bargain convictions. Two those defendants were also convicted of burglary charges; a third was convicted of arson. State-level criminal charges against two other defendants were dropped after they pleaded guilty to AETA charges.
Essentially a consolidated sentencing act, AETA extends to animal industry workers the provisions of the 1992 Animal Enterprise Protection Act, which covered only property.
AETA provides that “Whoever travels in interstate or foreign commerce, or uses or causes to be used the mail or any facility of interstate or foreign commerce for the purpose of damaging or interfering with the operations of an animal enterprise; and in connection with such purpose, shall be guilty of a federal crime, if the person intentionally damages or causes the loss of any real or personal property (including animals or records) used by an animal enterprise, or any real or personal property of a person or entity having a connection to, relationship with, or transactions with an animal enterprise, or intentionally places a person in reasonable fear of the death of, or serious bodily injury to that person, a member of the immediate family of that person, or a spouse or intimate partner of that person by a course of conduct involving threats, acts of vandalism, property damage, criminal trespass, harassment, or intimidation; or conspires or attempts to do so.”
The term “animal enterprise” means, according to AETA, “a commercial or academic enterprise that uses or sells animals or animal products for profit, food or fiber production, agriculture, education, research, or testing; a zoo, aquarium, animal shelter, pet store, breeder, furrier, circus, or rodeo, or other lawful competitive animal event; or any fair or similar event intended to advance agricultural arts and sciences.”
AETA has widely been decried as having an allegedly chilling effect on animal advocacy, but took effect with an amendment by U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein (D-California) stipulating that “the term ‘economic damage’ does not include any lawful economic disruption (including a lawful boycott) that results from lawful public, governmental, or business reaction to the disclosure of information about an animal enterprise.”
In addition, Feinstein added language stating that “Nothing in this section shall be construed (1) to prohibit any expressive conduct (including peaceful picketing or other peaceful demonstration) protected from legal prohibition by the First Amendment to the Constitution,” or “(2) to create new remedies for interference with activities protected by the free speech or free exercise clauses of the First Amendment to the Constitution, regardless of the point of view expressed.”
More undercover videos, not less
Of particular concern to animal advocates when AETA was passed was that it might be used much as ag-gag laws are designed to be used, to suppress undercover documentation and public exposure of animal suffering in the animal use industries.
This has not happened. Fewer than a dozen undercover video exposés of animal agriculture, for instance, were conducted between the first, done by Becky Sandstedt of Minneapolis in 1989, and when AETA took effect seventeen years later. Fifteen were done in the first four years post-AETA; Mercy for Animals alone has done at least 26 undercover video exposés of animal agriculture since 2009.
Hindi was unconcerned
Showing Animals Respect & Kindness founder Steve Hindi was unconcerned about AETA, after Feinstein amended it, even when AETA was new.
Among the most tactically aggressive U.S. animal advocates since 1991, and a pioneer of both undercover video and drone video investigation, Hindi has often conflicted with local law enforcement, especially while documenting pigeon shoots, rodeos, and animal suffering in connection with hunting and fishing.
Hindi was followed by the FBI while following former U.S. Presidential nominee Mitt Romney on the campaign trail, reminding voters that Romney allowed the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association to hold an “Olympic Command Performance Rodeo” as part of the Winter Olympic Cultural Program in Salt Lake City in February 2002.
Hindi has also been jailed several times for protest activities, though never convicted of a crime.
But, Hindi said of AETA in 2006, “I read the bill carefully, and since everything we do is legal, I don’t see where any of it applies to SHARK.”
Teaches drone use
Hindi has also for many years taught undercover video and drone video investigation at the AR conference series hosted annually by the Farm Animal Rights Movement, and often partners to do investigations with other animal advocacy organizations. Recent partner organizations have included Last Chance for Animals, Fish Feel, and Stop Animal Exploitation Now (SAEN).
On June 8, 2014, Hindi noticed a Kickstarter fundraising campaign called “Drone on the Farm,” launched by one Will Potter.
Potter, who styles himself a “freelance reporter who focuses on how the war on terrorism affects civil liberties,” is author of a 2011 book entitled Green Is The New Red: An Insider’s Account of a Social Movement Under Siege, and runs a blog entitled GreenIsTheNewRed.com.
Much of Potter’s work since 2006 has focused on ag-gag legislation, AETA, and prosecutions of protesters for alleged use of tactics including “direct action,” “open rescue,” and defacing public property. Earlier Potter appears to have focused on anti-war protests and related civil disobedience.
Asked Potter in his Kickstarter kickoff, “What are factory farms hiding with ‘ag-gag’ laws? I’ll combine drone photography with investigative reporting to find out.”
E-mailed Hindi to Potter later on June 8, 2014, “Today I read your ‘Drone on the Farm’ Kickstarter. SHARK has been using camera-equipped remote-controlled aircraft as part of our animal protection operation for a few years. I am contacting you to suggest a possible partnership, or at least advice should you choose to ask. This technology offers a great deal, but getting everything right is a challenge.
“We call our coptors Angels,” Hindi continued. “They carry high definition video cameras capable of considerable zoom, as well as pan and tilt. We also can shoot with a forward-looking infrared device. All video is monitored on the ground, so we can pinpoint our targets.”
Hindi provided “links to YouTube videos that will give you an idea of how we’ve used drones. Feel free to contact us if you wish.”
Raised funding goals
Potter never responded, but he ramped up his fundraising targets on June 17 and June 24, 2014, promising that with additional funding he would purchase a drone with greater capabilities than he had earlier intended to buy, would acquire a second drone, and would expand his proposed aerial videography project to more factory farms in more states.
On July 9, 2014, Potter posted to supporters, “My Kickstarter just ended, and I’m speechless. We met the original goal (in five days), we met the expanded goal (three times higher), we met the $30,000 match goal provided by a very generous donor, and we exceeded even that.”
Updates thereafter were sparse. On January 3, 2015, however, after several donors complained about the lack of information forthcoming from Potter, he posted, “I knew from the start that this project would be difficult and labor intensive, but that has turned out to be a significant understatement. Coordinating all of the components––media interviews, site research, drone filming, project planning, Kickstarter awards, and more––at the level of professionalism and quality that I demand, while also juggling existing obligations, has been far too much for one person.
But Potter said––or at least implied––that he had been doing some successful drone work. “In the next few weeks I’m also filming with the New York Times,” Potter said. “Meanwhile, I’ve been filming on my own across the country. In the Northwest, for example, I filmed dairy farms and also interviewed local residents who have been fighting the environmental destruction of these operations for decades.
“There have been ‘plenty’ of roadblocks and difficulties along the way. Drone crashes. Equipment failures. Weather cancellations. Sometimes it has just felt like one disaster after another,” Potter finished. “But, I’m moving forward. (And you can expect to see pieces of these investigations, both good AND bad, rolled out in future updates!)”
No footage at AR 2015
Hindi and Potter shared billing at AR 2015 as drone videography experts, but Potter showed no drone footage, provided no technical information, and the drones he had displayed earlier, in fundraising appeals, were little more than sophisticated toys, with a fraction of the capabilities he had claimed to be developing, a fraction of the capabilities of the SHARK drones, and price tags in the range of good bicycles.
Instead, Potter told the AR 2015 audience that he was a terrible drone pilot and that he had lost his drone to a “fly-away,” meaning a loss of radio contact, after which the drone could not be found.
This occasioned Hindi––and ANIMALS 24-7––to begin asking questions. Potter had purportedly raised more than $90,000, more than three times the entire 2014 budget for ANIMALS 24-7, with practically nothing to show for it and no accounting for where the money went.
When no response was forthcoming, Hindi took his questions public, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e3ucsO-AtE8.
ANIMALS 24-7 began checking Potter’s superficially impressive credentials, as posted at the GreenIsTheNewRed web site.
Says Potter’s bio, “His reporting and commentary have been featured in a wide range of the world’s top media outlets, including the Washington Post, CNN, National Geographic, WIRED, NPR, the History Channel, and Rolling Stone.”
Indeed Potter turned out to have at times been quoted as a source by many prestigious media, including the Washington Post and National Public Radio, but actual bylines earned as a journalist appear to be significantly fewer.
NewsLibrary turned up mostly Baylor University student newspaper sports bylines dating to 2011, perhaps not for work by the same Will Potter.
NewspaperArchive found no use of the phrase “by Will Potter” at all.
While Potter claimed to have been “filming with the New York Times,” his name was not found in repeated searches of the archives of the New York Times.
Potter has written extensively about some well-known longtime animal advocates who have run into legal issues, most notably Sea Shepherd Conservation Society founder Paul Watson.
More often, though, in ANIMALS 24-7’s assessment, Potter’s writing tends to elevate the profiles of relatively obscure people whose actions are at the margins of animal advocacy and are not embraced or endorsed by most major animal advocacy organizations.
“Really great PR”
As of this writing, Potter has yet to explain to Hindi, or ANIMALS 24-7, or his online following, just what he did with the $90,000 raised for his “Drone on the Farm” campaign.
But an early passage from Green Is The New Red may be revealing.
“The Red Scare was less about evidence than really great PR,” Potter wrote. “Joseph McCarthy and crew flacked one word so relentlessly, so virulently, that it became a political albatross to hang around anyone’s neck. The true meaning of the word fell by the wayside: communism became a fluid brand to slap on the enemy of the hour.”
Effectively fighting ag-gag legislation requires persuasive litigation and lobbying, building on existing frameworks of law and constitutional protection of civil liberties.
Effectively exposing and combatting institutionalized animal abuse, whether on factory farms, in entertainment, or elsewhere, requires skilled investigation and documentation.
Fundraising, selling books, and building a celebrity profile, though, really requires only great PR.