The state vs. activists: How progressive movements are repressed for corporate profit

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Managing dissent and controlling the threat posed by progressive movements is a central task of the capitalist state. In addition to direct violence, various techniques of "manufacturing consent" are deployed to marginalize and repress social movements.

Constructing Ecoterrorism: Capitalism, Speciesism and Animal Rights looks at some of the tactics used to attack the animal rights movement. These tactics not only serve to deflect criticism of the institutionalized violence that is inflicted upon non-human animals but also help to portray activism itself as something dangerous and unthinkable.

The creation of a frightening discourse about "ecoterrorism" mobilizes speciesist prejudices in the service of corporate profit while legitimizing calls for greater police powers and repressive legislation.  

In this excerpt from Constructing Ecoterrorism read about the dangerous inconsistencies and inaccuracies of who and what is defined as a "terrorist" or "terrorist action" and how industries are claiming themselves as victims while conducting gruesome and horrific practices on animals.


Former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski (2007) said the Bush government's "War on Terror" created a culture of fear, allowing it to mobilize public support for its policies, including invasion of Iraq. Brzezinski called this a campaign of "national brainwashing … reinforced by terrorist entrepreneurs" who present themselves as experts on terrorism but whose "task is to convince the public that it faces new threats." Among such newly-invented threats was the unlikeliest of all, the animal rights movement. Inspired by compassion and desire to stop exploitation and suffering of nonhumans, it is overwhelmingly non-violent; none of its proponents has ever deliberately killed anyone. Like all social movements, animal activists differ on goals and strategies; some advocate pacifist approaches, others may engage in property destruction. Although some consider this violence, most of these actions involve minor damage, such as breaking windows or locks to release animals from captivity in fur-farms or vivisection laboratories, where they face certain death. Almost everyone in Western societies professes to believe in a duty to avoid causing unnecessary suffering to animals and many consider it acceptable to commit illegal actions, such as trespassing, in order to prevent such suffering. Since it is unnecessary to kill animals for food or clothing or in trivial and redundant experiments, to be ethically consistent and avoid hypocrisy we should embrace veganism and endorse the work of activists who rescue animals from harm. In this sense, neither animal rights nor veganism should be considered strange or "difficult" but, rather, efforts to align our ethical convictions with our behaviour, to act with compassion and justice toward others. Furthermore, even for those who disagree with them, animal advocates' actions are a striking contrast to what most people conceptualize as terrorism. However, those who profit from animal exploitation consider these ideas dangerous. Therefore they work to limit them and establish boundaries of common sense. Those who exploit animals disingenuously portray themselves as proponents of animal welfare (claiming to exploit and kill "humanely") while characterizing those who truly care about animals' welfare, and try to prevent such exploitation and killing, as extremists and terrorists.

To transform compassionate, overwhelmingly nonviolent activists into "terrorists," the animal industrial complex (see below) mounted propaganda campaigns to deflect sympathy for activists' goals, depicting them as incomprehensible and dangerous. Even more outlandish than naming animal activists as terrorists in the first place was the FBI's specification of them as the "No. 1 domestic terrorism threat" (Schuster 2005). Hyperbole was further inflated to include environmentalists, with the twin menaces subsumed under the term "ecoterrorists." Driven by powerful and wealthy industries founded upon animal exploitation and resource extraction, "ecoterrorism" discourse became a useful mechanism to repress dissent. Depicting activists as terrorists was serviceable for corporations that exploit animals for profit, but this invented menace also served the interests of a terrorism industry that markets, and depends upon, constant production of fear.

CSH What Is Terrorism?

"Ecoterrorism" is a recent term, which properly might be applied to corporations directly involved in destructive practices of resource extraction and regularly use violence against animals, the environment and people who oppose their activities, employing police and military forces of states in which they operate or private armies (Nocella II 2014:181). This is not the typical usage, however. Instead, the term is applied to those who oppose such corporate violence. "Terrorism" is an essentially contested concept, with hundreds of defintions that depend on researchers' normative commitments (Schulenberg 2013). Some classify actions as terrorism, "depending on intention and circumstance" (Schmidt and Jongman 1988, quoted in Jackson 2009:172). However, most understand terrorism as illegitimate, murderous violence against innocent civilians intended to cause fear for political purposes. Thus, a Guardian (2015) editorial on an Islamist attack that killed 38 people at a Tunisian resort stated:

Attacks on holidaymakers are terrorism in its purest form, designed to frighten away others, to weaken the economy of Tunisia and so to damage the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of equally innocent Tunisians -- and plunge them into the kind of misery and deprivation that makes it easier to recruit more young men to the harsh and bloody certainties of violent jihadism.

While most would agree that those killings did constitute terrorism, other acts of political violence (particularly those conducted by powerful states) are not classified as such; thus, assessments are subjective and "in practice it is often the politically and culturally determined legitmacy of the particular group under scrutiny that determines whether its actions are labelled as 'terrorist' and not the characteristics inherent to the violent itself" (Jackson 2009:173). An example of political usage of the term was provided by Dylan Roof's shooting of nine people at a South Carolina church in June 2015. Although Roof festooned himself with apartheid symbols and wrote a racist manifesto explaining his political motivations, FBI Director James Comey said he did not consider this terrorism:

Terrorism is act of violence done or threatened to in order to try to influence a public body or citizenry so it's more of a political act and again based on what I know so more I don't see it as a political act. (Downie 2015)

While Comey declared that the murder of nine people by a white supremacist seeking to start a "race war" did not constitute terrorism, less than one month later the FBI clarified what did when they arrested two activists, Joseph Buddenberg and Nicole Kissane, and charged them as terrorists for releasing minks from fur farms. Greenwald (2015) called this abuse of the law timed to intimidate activists and chill campaigns to help animals as it coincided with the annual national Animal Rights conference in Washington DC, just as the Department of Justice did with Kevin Johnson and Tyler Lang in 2014, charging them as terrorists for freeing animals from an Illinois fur farm.

Although the FBI did not consider Roof a terrorist, his political intent was too obvious for others to ignore. The Washington Post (Phillips 2015) called it "clearly a terrorist act," noting that while the term is regularly applied to violence committed by non-white and, especially, Muslim, perpetrators, media do not apply it to acts by white supremacist or anti-government groups. Indeed, most definitions reflect the hegemonic nature of how the term is conceptualized; it is typically applied to those who challenge dominant powers and the status quo, epitomized by former Argentine dictator Jose Rafael Videla's assertion that a terrorist is "anyone who spreads ideas that are contrary to Western and Christian civilization" (Butko 2006:148). The United Nations (1999) says terrorism is:

Any act intended to cause death or serious bodily injury to a civilian, or to any other person not taking an active part in the hostilities in a situation of armed conflict, when the purpose of such an act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or to compel a government or an international organization to do or abstain from doing any act.

The FBI's (nd) website uses the U.S. Code, Chapter 113B, defining terrorism as "violent acts or acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law" and "appear to be intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping."

These definitions correspond roughly to what most consider terrorism. Hearing the term, many likely think of the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, which killed thousands, or other murderous incidents, such as the August 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the January 2015 killings at the Charlie Hebdo newspaper office in Paris and the November 2015 attacks there, the November 2008 attack in Mumbai by Islamist group Lashkar-e Taiba, or beheadings of journalists, aid workers, soldiers, villagers and Coptic Christians by ISIS in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria. Corporate media overlook state terrorism, including "the worst terrorist campaign in the world by far" -- the U.S. "global assassination campaign" using drones (Chomsky 2015). Thus the CIA (2007) specifies perpetrators and excludes state terrorism.

… "terrorism" means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.

Even taking into account selective outrage concerning perpetrators and victims, it is evident that killing innocent people is generally considered a key element of terrorism. That animal advocates, overwhelmingly nonviolent, could be described as terrorists at all indicates the epistemological confusion surrounding this highly-politicized term, with its shifting, malleable meanings. That top FBI officials and government officials identified them as the main domestic terrorist threat in the U.S. is ludicrous, particularly when we juxtapose campaigns by activists who explicitly reject violence with the history of actual terrorism, used as a "coercive tool[…]" of foreign policy by powerful states for centuries to maintain global capitalism, involving extensive violence estimated at between 170-200 million deaths in the twentieth century alone (Blakely 2011:1). Characterizing activists as terrorists demonstrates the term's highly-subjective political determination (Jackson 2009). Corporations that profit from exploitation and commodification of animals influence media and government to define their critics as illegitimate and form policies to impose higher penalties for actions that would otherwise be categorized as minor offenses, such as trespassing or vandalism. Ecoterrorism discourse shifts focus from criticism of their operations, generated by activists who provide evidence of gruesome, shockingly brutal practices that are standard in agricultural, research, captivity and entertainment industries. Rather than having to defend the violence they inflict upon billions of animals every year, industries present themselves as victims of violence committed by "animal rights extremists" and "ecoterrorists."

For more information on Constructing Ecoterrorism check out Fernwood Publishing for this and other great titles.

John Sorenson is a full professor in the Sociology department at Brock University, where he gives courses on animals and society, racism, and corporate globalization. Much of his research has been on war, nationalism and refugees. His books include Culture of Prejudice: Arguments in Critical Social Science; Ghosts and Shadows: Construction of Identity and Community in an African Diaspora; Imagining Ethiopia: Struggles for History and Identity in the Horn of Africa; Disaster and Development in the Horn of Africa; and African Refugees. His current research concerns the exploitation of animals, representation of animals and animal rights as a social justice movement His most recent book is Ape (Reaktion Books).


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