Once upon a time, there was a slumlord in Ann Arbor. He and his family lived in health and safety paid for, in part, by the rents of his tenants. One day, those tenants grew tired of waiting for heat and essential repairs. After months of petitioning both the landlord and the city, they went on a rent strike but even that usually very effective tactic was taking too long. With winter coming on, they decided to turn up the heat on the landlord, picketing his home and his office so that his neighbors and business associates would know what kind of a man he was. Wherever he went, there they were with their slogans and photos. As long as they stayed on public sidewalks and didn’t block traffic, it was all perfectly legal—except that they were committing domestic terrorism.
Some years later, also in Michigan, a young gay prisoner with AIDS was gang-raped by fellow inmates. A sympathetic straight inmate who was also HIV+ contacted ACTUP/Ann Arbor to let them know that the guards had locked the young victim in solitary confinement as punishment for “having sex” and that he was languishing there without medical treatment. ACTUP members first tried to work through channels but their increasingly urgent calls to the prison were brushed off by a warden’s office unused to giving priority to prisoners’ needs. The intrepid AIDS activists sprung into action, quickly organizing a phone and fax blitz that would make it impossible for the warden to attend to any other business until the young man was released from solitary and given health care. It was very effective and perfectly legal—except that they were committing domestic terrorism.
And then there was the case of the University of Michigan Regent who was the local equivalent of Jesse Helms. After one of his particularly outrageous anti-gay comments, a motley assortment of gay men and lesbians staged a kiss-in on the sidewalk in front of his house. He and his wife tried to spin the media coverage of the event by offering the activists cider and donuts, but the activists had succeeded in drawing public attention to bigoted remarks that otherwise would have been buried in meeting minutes. The Regent used his leverage to cancel a popular course taught by one of the activists. The students in the course were outraged and arranged for a barrage of email complaints to be sent to the relevant department chair on a given day. They didn’t save the activist’s job but did convince the department to make sure that the course content would be covered in other classes. All well and good except that—you guessed it—both the kiss-in and the email campaign were acts of domestic terrorism.
Don’t dismiss this as an overly paranoid reaction to the provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act. Our fears are now fact. The FBI’s domestic terrorism squad has arrested seven activists allegedly associated with Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) and lodged charges against both them and the organization itself. Within the indictments, “telephone and e-mail blitzes, fax blitzes and computer blockades against HLS in order to divert HLS employees from their regular work” are characterized as a conspiracy to terrorize the company. The tactic of setting up legal pickets on public property outside of private homes is characterized as stalking.
It’s time for the rest of the left to stand in solidarity with these activists, and not only because they might be next on the FBI’s list. Animal liberation activists like arrestee Josh Harper embrace all of the ideals of progressive activists; they simply include non-human animals among those deserving peace, justice, freedom, and self-determination. A self-described anarchist, Harper recently spoke at a conference at Syracuse University, condemning what he called “the commodification of life” and acknowledging his intellectual debts to feminist and anti-racist activists and writers.
SHAC campaign coordinator Kevin Jonas, who was also among the recent arrestees, also spoke at the Syracuse conference on animal liberation, explaining the strategy behind what has become one of the most effective efforts that any kind of activists have waged against a nefarious corporation. The SHAC campaign is also the subject of a chapter in a new book, Terrorists or Freedom Fighters: Reflections on the Liberation of Animals.
In brief, undercover video footage collected over a span of years revealed shocking abuses of animals at Huntingdon Life Science, a contract research firm to which other companies outsource animal testing of consumer products such as cosmetics and household cleansers. The footage, much of which is almost unbearable to watch, shows HLS employees punching and screaming at beagle puppies, a live monkey being dissected to death without anesthesia, and other atrocities. These films showed that the animals at HLS were suffering terror, pain, and psychological trauma associated with such abuses on top of the usual terror, pain, and psychological trauma associated with the enslavement and torture inherent in vivisection itself.
In response, animal advocates have launched a multi-faceted international campaign that applies pressure to both HLS and its customers. Activists affiliated with or inspired by the organization known as SHAC utilize the whole range of legal protest tactics ranging from public education to picket lines outside the homes of executives who have chosen to engage HLS to do animal testing for their companies. Meanwhile, without being asked, underground activists have chosen HLS and its customers for direct actions ranging from property destruction to animal rescues. As a result, HLS has lost customers while seeing its security costs rise. Its public pronouncements to the contrary, the company is on the ropes and unlikely to survive if the campaign continues.
Hence the impetus for the FBI action. Yet again, the Feds have stepped in to prove what leftists and animal liberationists already know: that the state and its police forces exist primarily to protect property.
As Ward Churchill notes in his introduction to Terrorists or Freedom Fighters, the rest of the left can and should learn from the animal liberation movement, which utilizes direct action more consistently and effectively than any other currently active social change movement. Even the least radical animal activist accepts the premise that one must “walk the talk” by making sure that one’s own purchases are consistent with ones stated beliefs. What if peace activists did the same? Virtually all animal activists are vegan, meaning that they do not purchase products made from or tested on animals and boycott all companies known to participate in any kind animal abuse. What if all of those who have marched for peace stopped buying war? How much more effective would the peace movement be if anti-war demonstrations were backed up by massive tax resistance and (most importantly) an uncompromising boycott of GE and other war profiteers? If the many millions of people worldwide who opposed the invasion of Iraq had voted with their wallets, we might well have been able to stop the war before it started.
That’s just one instance in which other activists might have been well served by taking a page from the playbook of a movement that has, in a few short decades, profoundly influenced both laws and public opinion. Since speciesism is, along with sexism, the oldest and most firmly rooted of the interwoven oppressions that have a stranglehold on the earth, the animal liberation movement has a very long way to go before achieving its goals. But remarkable progress already has been made. In Austria, the members of Parliament recently unanimously adopted a package of laws that will enshrine animal protection in the national constitution, end the traffic in dogs and cats, ban fur farms, and outlaw a number of cruel but usual practices, such as caging hens in egg factories and keeping dogs on chains. The United States is far behind Europe, but a combination of illegal direct action and above-ground consumer education recently led the California State Senate to pass a bill banning the production and sale of pate foie gras, which is made by force-feeding ducks and geese until they develop the diseased livers from which this “delicacy” is made.
According to a recent Gallup poll, more than half of all people in the United States now favor strict laws concerning the treatment of farmed animals (who are, at present, not covered by most state laws concerning cruelty to animals). One-fourth of all people in the United States have come to believe that animals deserve the same legal protections as human beings. These are remarkable numbers in a country where farmed animals have traditionally been denied any legal protections and animal rights activists have been derided (by both conservatives and the left) as lunatics without a clue as to the pulse of the public. Steadily increasing support for animal rights among the general public and among historically disenfranchised people suggests that the animal liberation message resonates with many people and that animal advocates have done a good job of imagining and enacting different ways of getting that message across to different groups of people.
The animal liberation movement still has a very long way to go in that respect and, indeed, is in the midst of one of those internal upheavals that all movements face when they begin to integrate the concerns and analyses of other movements into their own work. Just as feminists had to learn to include class and race in their analyses of issues while labor and anti-racist activists have had to learn to integrate feminist insights into their work, the animal liberation movement has been challenged from within to understand how speciesism relates to racism, sexism, and other intra-species inequalities. Movement conferences and publications now routinely address those issues, which were all but absent only a few short years ago.
The time has come for other progressive movements to respond in kind by, at minimum, extending solidarity to progressive animal liberationists ensnared by police oppression and by being willing to at least consider the arguments that animal liberationists have been making concerning the intersections between the exploitation of animals by people and the various ways that people exploit each other. It wasn’t so long ago that leftists dismissed environmentalists and vice versa. The “Battle in Seattle” never would have been won if it weren’t for the progress we have made in bridging that gap. Given the number of people who are actively involved in working for animal welfare or liberation, the potential benefits of bridging the divide between animal advocates and other progressive activists are even more exciting.
Liberationists of all stripes believe that no one is free when anyone is oppressed. What could the left possibly lose by embracing activists who are willing to place their own freedom on the line in the service of the most generous interpretation of that venerable slogan? Remember: Only the destruction of the category “being without rights” will ensure that no one is ever again pushed into it. In the interim, we can all agree that the widening of the category “domestic terrorist” to include people engaged in non-violent civil disobedience and heretofore legal protest tactics must be resisted with all of our might.
Top five things you can do to support the SHAC 7:
1. Go vegan. While most activism is speculative in nature, there is one thing you can do that will, without doubt, reduce the amount of water pollution for which you are personally responsible, reduce the amount of violence for which you are personally responsible, decrease your consumption of scarce natural resources, and save the lives of scores of animals per year. Going vegan allows you to do all of those things without in any way diminishing your ability to work on your favored causes. In fact, going vegan will probably give you more energy and more productive years in which to work for social change. Visit http://www.veganoutreach.org or goveg.com for a free information to help you make the transition wisely and easily.
2. Learn about vivisection. Start by realizing that, like biotechnology, vivisection is one of those things that scientists associated with industry and for-profit health care lie about with great regularity. Then get the facts about animal testing. You’ll learn that most vivisection is done on consumer and industrial products and that vivisection associated with disease research or drug testing has always been scientifically questionable and has become even more so with the advent of more sophisticated and accurate computer modeling programs. You’ll have a better understanding of why many people believe that vivisection would be unethical even if it were good science, since rats and rabbits (like dolphins and bald eagles) have their own purposes and have not consented to be tortured on our behalf. You’ll learn that it’s easy to avoid products tested on animals and that this is something else you can do without in any way interfering with your other activism. Visit http://www.shacamerica.net for information about vivisection or http://www.leapingbunny.org and click on “shopping guide” to access a free online or printed cruelty-free shopping guide.
3. Stand up against police repression. Don’t let the SHAC 7 or other animal activists be tried and sentenced in silence. Accord them the same respect and attention accorded to other political defendants and, if they are convicted, show them the same solidarity you show to other political prisoners. Some organizations already do this, encouraging people to support imprisoned earth, animal, and human liberationist activists alike; visit http://www.eco-action.org/efau/prisoners.html for an example of such solidarity.
4. Question assumptions. We’ve all been socialized to think certain things about each other and the world around us. In becoming a feminist, or peace activist, or anti-racist agitator, you probably had to unlearn some of the things you had been taught about other people or yourself. In so doing, you may have realized that you had been very much mistaken. Might you be similarly mistaken about the alleged superior value of human animals over other animals? Are you sure that you’ve thought through the idea that human beings have some sort of natural right to enslave and exploit other animals? Where did you get that idea? From the same people who told you that “queers” are unnatural and inferior? If you’ve challenged the one idea, why not challenge the other? Are you sure the exploitation of animals isn’t a causal factor in the oppression of people? Read Carol Adams’ The Sexual Politics of Meat, Marjorie Spiegel’s The Dreaded Comparison, and Charles Patterson’s Eternal Treblinka before rushing to judgment on that question.
5. Make sure you know where your money goes. Do you want peace? Then don’t buy from war profiteers like GE. Do you want a planet that can support life for many generations to come? Then don’t eat meat or drive a gas-guzzling SUV. Visit http://www.boycottbush.org for detailed information about war profiteers and http://www.bravebirds.org for a quick education on the social, economic, and environmental impacts of factory farming.
Pattrice Jones coordinates the Eastern Shore Sanctuary & Education Center in rural Maryland. Her chapter "Mothers with Monkeywrenches: Feminist Imperatives and the Animal Liberation Front" appears in the new anthology Terrorists or Freedom Fighters: Reflections on the Liberation of Animals, published by Lantern Press. The author is not affiliated with SHAC. The opinions expressed in this article are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of any organization.
Other Articles by Pattrice Jones