Confusion: Why Do Civil Rights Watchdog Groups Care About the Earth Liberation Front?

artwork by Brian Bowes (

The following on the scumbags in the ADL and SPLC… from the Earth First! journal, worth reading, worth passing on:

Extreme Confusion: Why Do Civil Rights Watchdog Groups Care About the Earth Liberation Front?
By Josh

When federal prosecutors recently likened the Operation Backfire defendants to the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), lawyers for the defense were quick to register their shock and disgust. Daniel McGowan’s attorney, Amanda Lee, appropriately condemned the comparison as “appalling,” “historically inaccurate” and “an insult to African-Americans.”

Although many animal rights and environmental activists seem startled by the prosecution’s analogy, it is merely the most visible and recent example of a growing tendency to conflate the Earth and animal liberation movements with racist hate groups. What’s most disturbing is that among the parties responsible for this trend are two of the nation’s largest and most prominent civil rights watchdog groups: the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).

How did these organizations—which were founded with the express purpose of combating anti-Semitism and white supremacy, and which have enjoyed the strong support of liberals and progressives for decades—develop such a keen interest in the Earth and animal liberation movements? The answer lies in a disappointing, disturbing and largely unknown history of neoconservative political agendas, adherence to a centrist/extremist model of society, unethical and illegal intelligence-gathering activities, cooperation with law enforcement, poor journalism and fear-mongering.

The Anti-Defamation League

Founded in 1913, the ADL’s original mission of combating anti-Semitic slander and libel quickly expanded to include civil rights advocacy. During the 1930s, the ADL initiated the practice for which it has become best known: the monitoring of racist and fascist groups through research and covert intelligence gathering.

Previously a somewhat liberal organization, the ADL began to undergo a marked shift toward a neoconservative political orientation during the 1970s, which resulted in new alliances with the religious and political right, as well as increased cooperation with law enforcement. Additionally, the ADL adopted centrist/extremist theory, a neoconservative social model that clumps together all dissidents from the political right and left—regardless of their diverse and often conflicting agendas—and dismisses them as psychologically unstable people deserving of marginalization and imprisonment.

The disturbing results of the ADL’s blind commitment to centrist/extremist theory came to light in 1993, when a police investigation revealed that the ADL had assembled (perhaps illegally) files on thousands of Arab-American, anti-war, anti-apartheid, civil rights, environmental, labor and social justice groups, including ACT UP, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Indian Movement, Food Not Bombs, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Greenpeace and the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Although criminal charges were (miraculously) never filed, the scandal harmed the ADL’s reputation and drew attention to its increasingly reactionary and paranoid suspicion of progressives and radicals.

Given this troubling history, it is not at all surprising that the “Extremism in America” section of the ADL’s website currently lists “ecoterrorism” alongside racist and fascist groups like the KKK, the National Socialist Movement and the World Church of the Creator. Moreover, the ADL’s profiles of Earth First!, the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) are littered with unqualified references to “terrorism” and “extremism,” as well as assurances that these nonviolent movements will inevitably (and intentionally) begin taking lives.

The examples that the ADL offers to confirm this charge are problematic at best and deliberately misleading at worst. For instance, the ADL states that in 1999, “a British reporter who had infiltrated the ALF the year before with a hidden camera
 was abducted by a number of men. They branded the letters ‘ALF’ on his back.”

What the ADL doesn’t say is that, according to the British magazine Green Anarchist, this reporter had made similar claims before, like when he said that he’d been kidnapped and shot in the leg by EF!ers. The idea that two separate movements employed new, unprecedented and never-repeated tactics of kidnapping and torture against the same person is simply too far-fetched to be true. Apparently, the police found Hall’s story unconvincing and promptly abandoned their criminal investigation. In treating this highly suspicious incident as proven fact, the ADL has failed to uphold its mission of assembling “accurate, detailed, unassailable information” and disseminating its findings through responsible and ethical journalism.

The Southern Poverty Law Center

The SPLC has followed a similar path from legitimate anti-racist work to the demonization of radical dissent. The SPLC was founded by Morris Dees and Joe Levin in 1971, as a small law firm focusing on civil rights cases. During the 1980s, the SPLC was catapulted into the national spotlight by a series of legal victories that bankrupted KKK and neo-Nazi groups. It quickly became one of the most visible and best funded anti-racist watchdog groups in the US.

Like the ADL, the SPLC has attracted significant controversy. In 2000, Harper’s Magazine published an article by Ken Silverstein—the magazine’s award-winning Washington Editor—alleging that the SPLC greatly overstates the threat posed by hate groups in order to raise more money.

“In 1986,” Silverstein wrote, “the SPLC’s entire legal staff quit in protest of Dees’ refusal to address issues—such as homelessness, voter registration and affirmative action—that they considered far more pertinent to poor minorities, if far less marketable to affluent benefactors, than fighting the KKK.”

Another similarity to the ADL is the SPLC’s Intelligence Project, which gathers information on a variety of “extremist” groups and publishes its findings in the quarterly Intelligence Report. While typically focused on white supremacists, the Report began covering the anti-globalization, animal rights and radical environmental movements following the 1999 World Trade Organization (WTO) protests in Seattle, Washington. Although the Report has generally avoided the “ecoterrorism” label in favor of “ecoradicalism,” it has undermined this sober restraint through a campaign of innuendo, conjecture, misinformation and fear-mongering that makes the ADL look amateurish by comparison.

In the Winter 2000 edition of the Report, for example, the SPLC concluded that the WTO protests signaled a coming alliance between right-wing and left-wing opponents of globalization, including neo-Nazis, the Nation of Islam and Earth First!. This charge was repeated in the Summer 2001 Report, which flung numerous outlandish accusations at the ELF in the hope that one might stick. The SPLC charged that “the ELF’s use of underground violence strongly resembles ex-Klansman Louis Beam’s concept of ‘leaderless resistance,’” as if this shared organizational structure is proof of a common racist ideology. Never mind the fact that leaderless resistance was actually developed by a US intelligence officer as a strategy for combating communist “extremists.”

The same Report also stated that “the ELF recently set this year’s ‘International Day of Action’ for April 19—a mythic date for the anti-government right. It was that day in 1993, when about 80 Branch Davidian cult members died in a fire in Waco, Texas
. It is also the day that Timothy McVeigh blew up a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168.” The Report ignored that the ELF chose the date for its proximity to Earth Day (April 22, 2001), and it did not even consider the possibility that the relation to Waco and Oklahoma City was a coincidence. Maybe the ELF picked April 19 because it’s the anniversary of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising—a significant event in the history of Jewish liberation and the fight against fascism. This explanation is as likely as any other.

Dozens of similar articles in the Intelligence Report make it clear that the SPLC advances conjecture as fact and coincidence as conspiracy, while excluding any information that might undermine its desired conclusion that the ELF is on the verge of allying itself with violent racists.

Disturbing Implications

If the ADL and the SPLC were small organizations on the margins of popular discourse and public policy, there would be little need for concern. However, both groups are large, particularly the ADL, which has 30 regional and three international offices. The ADL and the SPLC are also incredibly well-funded, with total annual revenues of more than $50 million and $30 million, respectively. Finally, and perhaps most disturbingly, both organizations enjoy significant influence with politicians, law enforcement and the public at large.

In 2002, a US congressional questionnaire sent to former ELF spokesperson Craig Rosebraugh quoted the SPLC’s charges of a growing alliance between the ELF and the racist, fascist right. It then asked, “How do you feel about the ELF being compared to the KKK? Is this an accurate comparison? Do you feel a kinship of cause with ‘racists and fascists,’ as the SPLC contends?” (For the record, Rosebraugh brusquely answered, “A) That is ridiculous and insulting. I would expect the SPLC to have more intelligence than that. B) No. C) No.”) These and other absurd allegations are frequently adopted as fact by lawmakers and law enforcement, resulting in policies and investigations based on ADL and SPLC propaganda. It is entirely possible—even likely—that the federal prosecution’s recent comparison of the ELF to the KKK was inspired by these organizations’ reports.

Additionally, there is evidence to suggest that both the ADL and the SPLC have a history of conducting covert investigations using surveillance and infiltration tactics that law enforcement is generally barred from employing without a warrant. The organizations then provide this information to the police and the FBI, effectively circumventing constitutional rights of privacy and assembly. The result is that these private watchdog groups are increasingly complicit in classically fascist systems of government surveillance and control. Apparently, the ADL and the SPLC oppose fascism when it is promoted by private individuals but condone it when practiced by the state, which is precisely when it is most dangerous.

The general public is also susceptible to the assertions of the ADL and the SPLC. Media reports on the Earth and animal liberation movements frequently quote these esteemed watchdog groups, whose statements are uncritically presented as expert commentary. To a populace that knows very little about the radical environmental and animal rights movements, the fact that the ADL and the SPLC are being quoted would seem to imply that there is an anti-Semitic, racist or fascist component to these movements.

By advancing this kind of innuendo, the ADL and the SPLC cheapen oppression and transform it into a kind of rhetorical capital that can be wielded for political gain. By painting the radical environmental and animal rights movements as a bunch of Nordic youths waiting to be Nazified, these organizations effectively marginalize and delegitimize the radical Jews and people of color who are actively working for the liberation of animals and the Earth. Perhaps more than anything, this shows how low the ADL and the SPLC have sunk.


Obviously, the ADL’s and the SPLC’s focus on the Earth and animal liberation movements needs to be challenged, but this must be done carefully. Speaking and writing against the ADL and the SPLC is a delicate undertaking, especially since both organizations are generally perceived as unassailable warriors in the fight against oppression. We must always be clear that our problem is not with combating anti-Semitism, racism and fascism, but with doing so in a manipulative and unethical fashion in order to advance a repressive, neoconservative agenda.

Additionally, we must be careful not to accidentally align ourselves with white supremacists. When researching the dark side of these organizations, pay close attention to what your sources are. Many websites “exposing” the ADL and the SPLC are operated by KKK and neo-Nazi groups. If your source refers to “the Jew Morris Dees” or cites the ADL as part of the “worldwide Jewish conspiracy,” you should look elsewhere for information.

As a final word of caution, it is my strong belief that direct action must be avoided. Home demonstrations and property damage will not work against the ADL or the SPLC. These organizations’ employees have endured death threats and physical violence from neo-Nazis and the KKK. They won’t be swayed by animal rights and environmental activists. Besides, this kind of approach would prove suicidal from both a law enforcement and public relations perspective. If action is to be taken, it should be restricted to peaceful demonstrations at relevant public events.

Effective opposition to unethical practices of the ADL and the SPLC must necessarily focus on the general public. Both organizations depend upon direct mail fundraising campaigns that tend to target liberals and progressives, who are largely unaware of these organizations’ dirty dealings. Mainstream animal rights and environmental activists, as well as sympathetic liberals and progressives, are likely to respond positively to a reasonable critique of these organizations.

Finally, Jewish animal rights and environmental activists — like myself — who are deeply disturbed by the ADL’s activities should discuss this with family, friends and members of our community. The involvement of a vocal contingent of anti-racist organizers, Jewish activists and activist people of color would go a long way toward legitimizing a challenge of the ADL and the SPLC, and it would help assure that these efforts retain the nuanced and cautious tone that they will require to be successful. Ultimately, exposing the reactionary and repressive nature of the ADL and the SPLC is not just about defending the Earth and animal liberation movements. It is about creating legitimate methods of challenging institutionalized oppression wherever it appears.

Josh is really hoping that someone out there knows how to make a good vegan matzoh brei.



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