The first trial from the 1/6 attacks is scheduled this week and it is likely to set the stage for additional trials to follow. Also this week, the United Nations has released a report finding that climate change is profoundly altering the world more quickly than had been thought earlier, making over half the world’s population “highly vulnerable” to significant negative impacts.
Over 770 rioters have been charged with crimes associated with the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, including Nicholas Languerand, who recently received a three year and eight month prison sentence for assaulting police officers. The judge said that the police officers at the Capitol that day deserve to be called patriots, not the rioters.
So far one-tenth of the total rioters charged have received sentences ranging from prison time, home confinement, or probation. The longest of these is 63 months for using a fire extinguisher against Capitol police. The median sentence is 45 days.
Justin McAuliffe, who recently plead guilty to the misdemeanor of parading, picketing, or demonstrating inside the Capitol, requested a lighter sentence than the maximum six months imprisonment, arguing that as an accountant he had lost clients as well as his TSA pre-check privileges, and has been banned from driving for Lyft and using Airbnb.
Will the involved self-proclaimed right-wing insurrectionists be charged and punished under the same strict guidelines as those labelled left-wing “eco-terrorists” have in the past?
So far, the answer seems to be no.
In Canada, some have argued that a recent attack on a gas pipeline is the real terrorist threat, rather than the truckers obstructing traffic in its capitol city of Ottawa. Here in the U.S. Republicans Sen. John Borrasso of Wyoming argued that President Biden’s selection to lead the Bureau of Land Management, Tracy Stone-Manning, should be automatically disqualified due to an earlier association with Earth First, which he called an eco-terrorist organization.
Environmental and animal rights activists in the U.S. have employed various tactics since the 1970s, including protests, lobbying, documentation of animal mistreatment, and the “liberation” of captive animals from fur farms and research labs.
Some have used their bodies to block the passage of heavy equipment or otherwise sought to physically disrupt logging, whaling, and construction projects like the Dakota Access Pipeline.
According to the Department of Homeland Security, between 1995 and 2010, activists belonging to one or both of two related groups, the Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front, were responsible for 239 arson attacks and bombings in the United States to curtail exploitation of animals, raise public awareness, and decrease the profitability of targeted industries, causing more than $110 million in property damage.
For example, in 1998, ELF and ALF activists firebombed a Vail ski resort due to despair and anger about the state of the environment. The attack caused $12 million in damage. In 2001, ELF activists protesting gene modification research set fire to the office of a University of Washington professor in 2001, accidentally destroying several other faculty offices and 20 percent of an adjacent library’s book collection.
In response, these radical environmental and animal rights activists were labeled as eco-terrorists and singled out by high-ranking FBI officials as America’s “number one domestic terrorism threat.” This set in motion a period of heightened surveillance, legislation, prosecution, and incarceration.
Congress passed the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) in 2006, designating it a felony act of terror to intentionally interfere with the profits of farms, processing plants, circuses, zoos, research facilities and other “animal-related enterprises” as well as providing harsher penalties for harassment and intimidation resulting in a “reasonable fear of death or bodily injury.”
An informant led to the identification of 11people who were arrested and tried for 17 ELF and ALF actions in Oregon, Washington, Wyoming, Colorado, and California. Some were charged with arson, while others were charged with lesser crimes.
Alberto Gonzales, Attorney General in George W. Bush’s administration, said these arrests proved the United States “will not tolerate any group that terrorizes the American people, no matter its intentions or objectives.”
Even after pleading guilty, many of these activists were sentenced to serve six to 10 years, and some received a “terrorism enhancement” penalty which mandated their time be served in a maximum-security facility with strict limitations on visitation and other forms of outside contact.
In 2009, Marie Mason was sentenced to nearly 22 years after pleading guilty to 13 counts of ELF-related arson, including setting fire to the office of a faculty member doing research on genetically modified crops. Her attorney said the sentence was like “using a cannon to shoot a mouse.” The average federal sentence for arson is about seven years, less than three years for physical assault, and for embezzlement, 11 months.
Following Congressional hearings in 2002 which were entitled “The Threat of Eco-Terrorism,” environmental and animal rights activists began to refer to these heightened penalties as part of a “Green Scare,” likening it to Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s post-World War II Red Scare persecution of leftists who were alleged to belong to the Communist Party.
The Green Scare seems to have contributed to a decline in this movement over the last decade. Several ELF activists who served time have since disavowed arson and other forms of property destruction.
At her sentencing in 2007 nine years in prison for five arson attacks, Chelsea Dawn Gerlach said that she realized that the fire bombings had done more harm than good for the environmental cause. At his 2007 sentencing of 13 years in prison for setting fire to SUVs at an auto dealership, Stanislas Meyerhoff said his actions were misguided and cowardly, adding that he regretted negatively impacting the public’s understanding of the environmental movement.
The official ELF website harshly criticizes those who continue to advocate the use of illegal tactics for risking injury to others, alienating the general public, and condemning activists to years in jail. In 2015, their official website posted, “Regardless of the frustration we all feel about the enormous perils facing our Mother Earth, engaging the perceived wrong-doers with threats, intimidation, and destructive tactics will always fail.” ELF has not made the news in connection with a major incident of arson for several years.
To be sure, ELF and ALF activists have criminally destroyed private property through arson and other criminal tactics and set back ongoing research projects and business development. However, no one has been seriously injured during an ELF action.
The same cannot be said of the 1/6 insurrection, which resulted in at least nine deaths including five police officers and four protesters. Another 150 officers were injured. Hundreds of people working at the Capitol that day were traumatized.
The median prison sentence is 45 days for those being incarnated at all. Fewer than half have received any prison time. The longest sentence for any of the 1/6 Capitol rioters so far has been 5 years and 3 months.
In March 2021, Director of the FBI Christopher Wray testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee calling the 1/6 riot at the U.S. Capitol “domestic terrorism,” and warning of growing violent homegrown extremism, especially in white supremacist groups.
Congress should pass a bill specifically criminalizing domestic terrorism. But in this time of intense political polarization, a lopsided administration of justice seems more likely.
In March of last year Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) re-introduced the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act of 2021 saying, “We need to be abundantly clear that white supremacists and other far-right extremists are the most significant domestic terrorism threat facing the United States today. This threat must be confronted with the full force of the federal government.”
This Act was overwhelmingly passed the House but was blocked in the Senate by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI). Durbin has been trying to get this bill passed since 2017. Political polarization has made it unlikely to pass anytime soon.
Whether the bill passes or not, existing sentencing enhancements should apply evenly across the political spectrum, including 1/6 insurrectionists on the political right. Perhaps it made sense to apply those enhancements to environmental activists who were deemed the number one domestic threat in their time. Now that the FBI Director and other government officials have said that the Capitol insurrection and related white supremacist activities the new leading domestic terrorist threat, isn’t it time that these enhancements are applied to them as well?