“When They Come for You:” Q&A with Author David Kirby

SRAP had a chance to speak with best-selling author David Kirby about his latest book, When They Come for You.

Tell us about the journey that led you to write “When They Come For You?”

The inspiration actually came from my partner Carlos, who is from Venezuela and knows all too well what can happen when the state abuses the rights of the citizens it is supposed to protect. Carlos also told me about nightmare stories of Code Enforcement abuses by municipalities in Florida against homeowners, which gave him the idea for a book that I could write. Ironically, I ended up not writing about code enforcement because, as bad as that situation is, the issues I did include are even more alarming.

Why does this book and its subject matter to you? And why should it matter to others?

I must confess that I was blissfully unaware of most the issues in this book until I began my research. I was shocked that such injustices occur every day in the United States. The more I learned, the more I realized how important it was to document real stories about real people who suffered mightily at the hands of government abuse and overreach. These horror stories could happen to almost anyone in America (though the wealthy tend to escape most of it). The people I profiled did not think it could happen to them, until it did happen to them. We must all know our rights as guaranteed under the Bill of Rights, and how to protect them. You have to be aware of a problem before you can begin to fight against it.

In your book, “Animal Factory,” you visited the issue of factory farms. Can you talk a little bit about that book and what led you to research factory farm issues?

Again, using stories of real people – including SRAP’s Karen Hudson, but also Rick Dove of North Carolina and Helen Reddout of Washington State – and what happened to them when CAFOs invaded their communities, this book explains, in human terms, the toll that factory farming can take on ordinary lives – from unbreathable air to undrinkable water to fish-killing algae blooms and so much more. It also deals with issues of power – in this case of large corporations, Farm Bureau and the various government agencies that are supposed to regulate industrial-scale agriculture and protect communities and the environment. My inspiration here came from clean-water activist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who told me about the situation in Prairie Grove, AR, where chicken CAFOs were dry-spreading poultry litter laced with arsenic (which was put in the feed to increase growth rates), including on fields surrounding the local high school. Rates of cancer skyrocketed. I visited the town: it was some of the most depressing reporting I have ever done in my career.

 Do you see a connection between factory farms and the trampling of civil liberties?

I do. For one, the Fifth Amendment (which deals with so much more than self-incrimination) states that no one shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law. Yet when CAFOs pollute the air and water of neighboring properties, those individuals are too often deprived of any real due process, as the system is so often rigged against them, including in the courts, as we saw in Karen Hudson’s case. The Fourteenth Amendment, meanwhile, while offering the same due-process protections as the Fifth Amendment (at the state rather than federal level) it also guarantees “equal protection” under the law. But when CAFO owners appear to enjoy greater protections than CAFO victims, equal protection goes out the window. Finally, there are many First Amendment issues at stake, including restricting the rights of protestors, enacting “Ag-Gag” laws that criminalize exposure of environmental injustices and, as in Karen’s case, repression of free speech in a courthouse.

In this book, you talk about SRAP representative Karen Hudson and what happened to her after the CAFO industry went after her in Illinois. Can you talk a little more about that and why you included that in this book?

When Karen told me her story I was mortified. What happened to her and her friend was unconscionable. They were arrested, handcuffed, jailed and then convicted of criminal contempt of court after handing out some information on CAFOS to spectators attending a civil suit trial against a factory farm in Illinois. Court was not in session and the jury was not in the room at the time, yet the judge, who receives large donations from industrial ag, ruled a mistrial and had the two women arrested on the spot, without giving them a chance to argue their case – clear violations of their First, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

What do you think about the political influence of the CAFO industry?

I think it is one of the most powerful industries in the nation, with endless resources to fight legal battles and citizen attempts to curb its growth. Not only does it have influential lobbyists in Washington, DC, it also has representatives in all 50 state capitals and virtually every county where agriculture takes place. What other industry can boast that depth and breadth of influence? The USDA, meanwhile, seems more intent on eviscerating environmental regulations that enacting or protecting them.

What’s one of the most surprising things you learned while writing this book?

Without a doubt, the most shocking and horrifying issue I came across was the abuse of parental rights by Child Protection Services (CPS) agencies. Every day across the country, parents have their children ripped away from them and placed indefinitely in foster care – or even put up for adoption – often based on scurrilous, anonymous “tips” from others. Because the family court system in so many jurisdictions is rigged against them, it can take years for them to get their children back – if they get them back at all. It’s one thing to unlawfully take away your money, house, business or freedom, it’s quite another to take away your child – especially when you are innocent of all charges against you. The agony they suffer is almost indescribable.

What do you hope this book can impart to its readers?

Know your Bill of Rights! Most people have not studied these critical amendments since high school and many do not fully understand the protections they offer – in theory at least. I hope this book will raise awareness of these abuses among readers, and I hope it will really piss them off, as it should. Readers need to know what is happening in this country, and they may want to learn how to combat this problem. One way is to support organizations that are fighting for citizens’ rights, including SRAP. Another is to hold elected officials – on the federal, state and local levels – accountable for not taking these issues seriously and failing to enact reform measures that would help restore the rights of all Americans.