Aside from my parents’ case, United States v. Dennis is perhaps the most famous McCarthy Era Red Scare legal action. In that case the government convicted the leaders of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) of conspiring to organize a revolutionary movement. Once the hysteria abated, the Supreme Court decision upholding that conviction became one of the more embarrassing episodes of our judicial history. CPUSA leaders went to prison for coordinating the teaching of the principles of Marxist-Leninism, despite the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of assembly and speech.
Fast forward to the 21st century. Today we have the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) passed in 2006. AETA is a beefed up version of the Animal Enterprise Protection Act (AEPA) that was passed in 1992.
Under AETA, “Whoever travels in interstate commerce…. for the purpose … of interfering with the operations of an animal enterprise, intentionally… causes the loss of any … personal property [or] intentionally places a person in reasonable fear … of serious bodily injury … by a course of conduct involving … harassment or intimidation or conspires or attempts to do so” shall be subject to massive fines and many years in prison. In plain English, if you organize a group of people to take action that results in a financial loss to an animal enterprise or scares the employees of that company then you can go to prison for a very long time. That’s today’s law, and so far, the one prosecution I’m aware of that the government initiated under it, was dismissed without its constitutionality being tested.
However, seven people went to prison for organizing against Huntingdon Life Sciences under the AEPA, the older, “gentler” version. AEPA created the new crime of “animal enterprise terrorism,” but you had to cause physical disruption to violate this law. It was designed to counter the growing underground movement of animal rights and environmental activists who damaged property to disrupt the activities of corporations that tormented animals and despoiled the environment.
But the young people who organized Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC), and have become known as the SHAC 7 were not part of an illegal underground campaign. Instead they organized a very public and successful effort to shame and harass a large corporation, Huntingdon Life Sciences. In post-9/11 America, prosecutors developed a new legal theory by expanding the “physical disruption” language in AEPA to include loss of profits. The SHAC 7 were convicted of being animal enterprise terrorists under that interpretation of physical disruption. In 2006 the judge sentenced the “conspirators” to up to six years in prison.
This movement isn’t about being nice to kittens and puppies. It’s about torture of animals on a massive scale, in pursuit of corporate profit. Huntingdon Life Sciences kills at least 71,000 and possibly as many as 181,000 animals annually to test cleaners, cosmetics, drugs, pesticides and other ingredients. Hidden camera videos have recorded employees beating animals and dissecting live monkeys.
Will Potter, in his new book Green is the New Red, describes a particularly horrific experiment at another laboratory: “[O]ne infant primate [was] named Britches. Experimenters had taken Britches from his mother on the night of his birth and sewn his eyes shut with thick black sutures. They attached a sonar device to his head that let off a screeching sound and placed him in a steel cage, alone; the isolation and sensory deprivation caused neurological disorders. Britches would lurch and shake, shrieking.”
What’s this got to do with United States v. Dennis? Just as in Dennis, the courts in the SHAC 7 case have criminalized organizing. And if that can be done under AEPA, you can imagine the result under AETA, which could be considered as AEPA on steroids!
I know there are RFC supporters who feel that fighting for animal rights is a somewhat trivial pursuit compared to trying to prevent the horrific crimes against humanity carried out by multi-national corporations and the many governments they influence or control. But the behavior against which these activists are organizing, is part of the same culture that permeates the military industrial complex, the energy companies, the private prison corporations, and so on. These are the same foes we all face every day. The rights the corporations and their political flunkies seek to curtail belong to us all. And the sensibilities these heroic young militants seek to spread are the same values to which other progressives aspire.
Let’s not look down our noses at a new generation of activists whose causes vary from our own and who are doing things a little differently from what our generation did. Instead, let’s emphasize our points of convergence. We need as much solidarity as we can get in taking on the corporate juggernaut.