I Got Inspired. I Gave. Then I Got Scared.
Standing in a crowd on a cold and rainy New Hampshire day in January 2004, a few weeks before the presidential primary there, I listened to John Edwards give a moving speech about poverty in America. I went home to New Jersey and wrote him a $500 check.
My donation didn't propel Edwards to his target atop the Democratic ticket. It did, however, make me the target of an extremist animal rights organization, a consequence of transparency in campaign fundraising that still makes me wary when I open my mail.
About a year ago, I was contacted by the corporate security department at Bristol-Myers Squibb, where I worked at the time, alerting me to the fact that my name and home address appeared on a list of "targets" issued by the radical group Stop Huntington Animal Cruelty. The singular goal of that organization, which the FBI named in 2005 as one of the most serious domestic terrorism threats, is to put Huntington Life Sciences, a contract animal testing laboratory it accuses of abuse, out of business. Because Bristol-Myers Squibb, like many others, contracted with that lab in pharmaceutical development research, the animal rights group added my name to its target list. My address was printed under the message: "Now you know where to find them."
Among the 100 or so of my colleagues who appeared on the list along with me were an accountant, a human resources manager and some sales guys. I was a materials sourcing manager, buying things such as binding agents and aspirin for common medications: hardly the ingredients of controversy. At no time did I have any involvement with Huntington Life Sciences -- in fact, I didn't even know we had a relationship with the lab.
Despite that, I had the distinction of appearing on the list twice: once under Gigi Brienza, and once under my given first name, which is different. It was this double-naming that signaled to me at once that SHAC had culled my information from campaign contribution records, as I had made donations under both names in the 2004 presidential election cycle. The FBI has confirmed the connection. While my $500 donation to Edwards and a subsequent $250 donation to Ralph Nader in the general election certainly didn't represent campaign money to bolster the interests of Big Pharma, it was enough to put me on SHAC's list.
The group went after anyone it thought was complicit, however remotely, in animal cruelty. Laws intended to protect our democracy made its targeting efforts that much easier. In an effort to limit individual influence on the outcome of federal elections, the law requires disclosure of individual donations of $200 or more. When I wrote those checks, I added my name, address and place of employment to a publicly searchable database on the Federal Election Commission's Web site.
Luckily, SHAC's members didn't find me and I stayed safe. Now most of the organization's leaders are in federal prison, convicted of employing terror tactics and harassment in its animal rights campaign. But the experience has left its mark.
In recent weeks, as I've sorted through donation requests from the presidential candidates, not only am I unsure about whom to support, I am also uncertain about whether to participate in the fundraising process. If I am moved to write a check, however, I will limit my contribution to $199.99: the price of privacy in an age of voyeurism and the cost of security in an age of domestic terrorism.
Gigi Brienza lives in New Jersey.