One Struggle, One Fight: SHAC 7 and the Future of Dissent |
June 3, 2005
by Pete Spina
Lining the sidewalk outside the federal courthouse in Trenton, NJ on June 1, 2005, some of the signs they hold show pictures of restrained, mutilated or tortured animals from experiments worthy of the imagination of Dr. Josef Mengele, involving elaborate and brutal head restraints on terrified primates, wired brain implants on prostrate, living house cats and disemboweled beagle puppies. Other signs call for the defense of free speech, invoking the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights.
The sun is out but the breeze keeps them cool. They are nicely, even conservatively dressed, middle class and mostly white, and they maintain an orderly composure while police deploy linked metal barricades in front of them. Armed federal police guard the entrance of the courthouse behind them, clad in bullet-proof kevlar vests. They do not taunt the police, but they do chant loudly, enegetically and in unison:
"Human freedom, animal rights! One struggle, one fight!"
Inside the courthouse, the trial of the SHAC 7 has begun.
The SHAC 7
On May 26, 2004, a federal grand jury indicted seven activists on "terrorism" charges. Kevin Jonas, Jake Conroy, Lauren Gazzola, Darius Fulmer, Andy Stepanian, Josh Harper and John McGee were indicted on charges of "animal enterprise terrorism" under the Animal Enterprise Protection Act of 1992.
At heart, this is a free speech fight. The specifics of the indictment state that the seven are alleged to have run a website that reported on protests aimed at pressuring investors, stockbrokers and customers of the animal experimentation facility Huntington Life Sciences to divest from the facility. The indictment alleges the seven conspired to encourage the disruption of commerce at HLS. The government's interpretation of the AEP Act seeks to define as domestic terrorism any such third party action that has the effect of limiting commerce, whether criminal in method or not and no matter how peaceful, encompassing a variety of tactics such as civil disobedience, demonstrations and divestment campaigns.
Industry spokesmen like David Martosko of the Center for Consumer Freedom, a front group for the meat, dairy and restaurant industry, have smugly described SHAC as the "mainstream animal-rights movement's Achilles Heel." Their hope is that should the SHAC 7 trial end in a guilty verdict, it will effectively criminalize any dissent. The AEP Act could then be used to prosecute other organizations, like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). This trial is a test case of the principle that advocating non-violent change -- and being effective at it -- is the same as engaging in violent terrorist activity.
This principle has been applied before in US history. It is the same twisted logic that lead to the imprisonment and execution of the Haymarket Martyrs, late nineteenth century labor organizers and anarchists who fought for the 8-hour day. This principle sent Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti to the electric chair. Like these figures from history, the SHAC activists scarcely fit the bill of the hardened thugs they are made out to be.
Soft-spoken Kevin Jonas volunteered for nursing homes, worked for PIRG and founded an Amnesty International chapter at his alma mater, Midwestern University. Jake Conroy went to art school. Lauren Gazzola is a magna cum laude grad of NYU. Darius Fulmer works as an EMT. Andy Stepanian spends his weekends with a group that cooks food for the homeless. Josh Harper went to school for drama and runs his own video production company. John McGee is a law student. These are twenty to thirty year-olds more likely to discuss where they can find tasty vegan ice cream than plot harm to anyone or anything, yet the government ranks them as terrorists equivalent to Iraqi suicide bomb mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Despite efforts to portray them as such, several government officials openly ackowledged that SHAC has not violated the Animal Enterprise Protection Act.
FBI Deputy Assitant Director John Lewis stated that "the activities of SHAC generally fall outside the scope of the AEP statute. In fact, SHAC members are typically quite conversant in the elements of the federal statute."
McGregor Scott, US Attorney for California's Eastern District, admitted that "While animal 'terrorists' [sic] are increasingly targeting not only animal enterprises themselves...but also anyone who is believed to be engaged in the provision of services to such animal enterprises, federal law does not currently equip the Department with the necessary tools to effectively prosecute the perpetrators of such conduct."
Despite these admissions, the government is moving lockstep with animal testing industry groups like the bogus Center for Consumer Freedom and with Huntington Life Sciences itself, as well as corporate investors who face the prospect of public pressure and exposure due to their morally questionable business ventures. Having failed to gain any headway on more militant, clandestine groups such as the Animal Liberation Front, the government is seeking to destroy the animal rights movement's above-ground and transparent activist base.
The immensely effective SHAC campaign (having already bankrupted Huntington Life Sciences twice before financial intervention by the UK government, a move unprecedented in history) is first on the list, but the government's tactics of intimidation and calculated suppression of dissent can easily be extrapolated to other grassroots movements, a fact that should deeply concern anyone interested in civil liberties or social justice.
SHAC: a Blueprint for Effective Activism
Just as the animal research industry's motives are obvious, the government's reasoning is simple: their greatest fear is that other activists will learn from the SHAC campaign and integrate those tactics into their own endeavors. From the global social justice and anti-war movements to anti-racist, labor and community activism, the potency of SHAC's methods are compelling.
In only three years, by means of secondary and tertiary targeting of companies investing in HLS that do not actually need HLS to remain financially secure, and by enabling the free-flow of information about actions conducted by other groups in a coordinated manner, the lab lost 90% of its worth as companies divested or cancelled contracts. Insurance firms will no longer cover HLS. Accounting firms will not do their taxes. All this has been accomplished by a simple understanding of corporate hierarchies, knowledge of the pressure necessary to isolate and discourage investment and the application of time, energy and the concerted activity of committed activists.
Key to these tactics are an aggressive, no-compromise stance. Activists do not simply protest HLS, they protest anyone who has any business dealings with HLS. In some cases, activists have sent black faxes to companies' fax machines, burning out print cartridges after 20 copies, a tactic the federal indictment cites as a violation of the FCC's indecency provisions. Other actions in the campaign have involved demonstrations at the homes of executives and investors. While these tactics are aggressive and rude, they simply do not fall into the category of violent terrorism.
This has the government grasping for straws and reacting in desperate ways. Central to the government's case against the SHAC defendants is the accusation that SHAC activists are violent extremists. These accusations carry no weight in reality, only the threat of guilt by association. For instance, Executive Assitant US Attorney Charles McKenna revealed in the first day of trial that the government may seek to include testimony from Brian Cass, an HLS managing director from England who was attacked outside of his home by unknown, unidentified assailants. The only connection made between the SHAC defendants in the United States and Cass is that Cass worked for the same firm they targeted for protest, but at its UK facility.
Other insinuations come straight from HLS execs themselves. HLS general manager Mike Caulfield called the SHAC 7 "extremists" and said the trial is about whether HLS employees "should have to fear for their lives." This is a convenient scare tactic used by a company whose direct financial interests are threatened by the exposure of its practices and are completely unsupported in fact. The mindset also betrays an egregious political double standard, shared by the Republican Party.
Definition of a Domestic Terrorists
On May 18, 2005, the Senate's Committee on Environment and Public Works held an oversight hearing regarding the prevalence of "eco-terrorism," specifically focusing on the activities of the Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front. In testimony, FBI Deputy Assistant Director Lewis told the committee that animal rights and environmental extremists are the nation's top domestic terror threat, beyond even violent neo-nazi groups like the Aryan Nations. He included SHAC in his assessment.
Republican Senator from Louisiana David Vitter echoed this conclusion, discussing the actions of "ALF vandals" at Lousiana State University. Although unable to produce a single instance of an individual being injured in any way, he ended by saying that "It is only a matter of time until these attacks by domestic terrorists involving arson result in human deaths."
Democratic Senator from Vermont Jim Jeffords questioned the entire proceeding. "I am puzzled why the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is examining the issue of animal rights and eco-terrorism since the Committee lacks jurisdiction over criminal law enforcement issues."
Jeffords went on to express his frustration that Democratic Congressman Bennie Thompson, ranking member of the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee, had been barred by the Republican EPW Committee Chair, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, from testifying about the danger posed by demonstrably violent right-wing extremists.
Jeffords stated, "I'd like to submit for the record a report Congressman Thompson prepared, entitled - quote - 'Ten Years After the Oklahoma City Bombing, the Department of Homeland Security Must Do More to Fight Right-Wing Domestic Terrorists.' The report highlights the apparent failure of DHS to assess the threat posed by right-wing domestic terrorist groups in the Department's five-year budget planning document. I share his concern that the Department of Homeland Security needs to protect us from all terrorist threats and should not focus on eco-terrorism at the expense of other domestic terrorist groups, such as the KKK, right wing militias, abortion bombers and skin heads."
Jeffords' concerns have good cause. In February of 2005, the husband and mother of US District Judge Joan Lefkow were murdered, execution style, in the basement of her home in Chicago's suburbs. Judge Lefkow had issued a copyright infringement ruling against a white supremacist group called the World Church of the Creator and ordered its leader, Matt Hale, to change its name and cease using documents bearing the group's name. Matt Hale then attempted to contract a hit on Judge Lefkow's life. As he awaited sentencing for that conviction, Lefkow's family was murdered.
Other incidents by white supremacists and right-wing extremists in the past involved a racist, three-day shooting spree in Illinois and Indiana in 1999, attempts to manufacture or acquire weapons of mass destruction, including biological and chemical agents, abortion clinic bombings and assassinations of doctors who practice abortion procedures, the delivery of home-made anthrax through the mail by neo-nazis against "lawyers with Jewish-sounding names," and best known, the Oklahoma City bombings of 1995 that killed nearly two-hundred men, women and children.
The reality is that right-wing extremists have proven exceedingly violent and brutal in recent years, while animal rights and environmental campaigners have simply been extremely effective activists. Right-wing extremists might kill people, but animal rights and environmental activists hit corporate profits.
The government wears its political self-interest on its sleeve, a self-interest that mirrors the interests of the animal research industry: a total disregard for the suffering of living beings and the blind pursuit of profit through intimidation and lies.
...and Then There Were Six.
Actions by prosecutors on the opening day of the trial expose the inherent weakness of the government's case against SHAC. Attorney Josh Markowitz announced to reporters that his client, John McGee, was no longer part of the case and that Markowitz expected that the charges against McGee would be dismissed.
Indeed, it seems that none of the other defendants even knew who McGee was and many people openly questioned why he was indicted in the first place. The extent of McGee's involvement in the SHAC campaign remains unclear. However, the government's insistence on investigating and indicting someone with no discernable involvement in the group has several explanations.
First, the government wants to nail SHAC and nail them bad. It is so desperate that it pursues every possible lead with maximum pressure, including the use of illegal methods. A defendant's car windshield was even smashed recently and a laptop stolen from that defendant's car; $50 in cash was left untouched.
It is easy to understand John McGee's indictment in this context. If he had any connection to protests against HLS or to the animal rights movement more generally, a federal indictment against him would up the ante considerably, forcing him into a position where he could be coerced into helping the government's case against SHAC, either with information or through testimony. The leverage gained by a federal indictment is considerable, but it remains to be seen what impact any information gained in this way would have considering the questionable and indirect circumstances of McGee's involvement.
Still, even if McGee had absolutely no connection to the SHAC campaign or the activists currently on trial and has not been coerced in this manner, being the federal government means never having to say you're sorry.
Second, the government wants to send a clear message to animal rights and other activists in the United States: if you are effective, you will face an unprecedented level of pressure from federal agencies regardless of the legitimacy or the methods of your activities. The conclusion that social justice, animal rights and other activists should draw from this is stark. The war on dissent is real, it is coordinated and the need for solidarity between different movements has never been more urgent.
One Struggle, One Fight
Animal rights activists have largely been part of an insular, single issue movement. Their activity rarely extends beyond specific concerns. Many animal rights activists have only recently begun to engage in a broader analysis of human society, but that engagement has begun, if slowly. The animal rights movement has always been effective at addressing the question of what, but it is equally important to answer the question why: why companies such as HLS pursue these actions, why the US, UK and other governments seek to protect them and why many people do not share the animal rights movement's concerns. The answers are not always as simple as some would like to believe. If vivisection ended today, the basic motivation behind its pursuit would still remain: it is a capitalist enterprise driven by greed. As long as that incentive remains built into the structure of society, so will animal cruelty.
For their part, social justice, anti-capitalist and anti-war activists have largely been content with mass protests, marches and petitions with the occasional foray into direct action. Labor activists have been content with fighting for better working conditions in a limited sense while expanding or preserving current membership. Many anti-globalization activists pine for the summit-hopping days following the Battle of Seattle. Coordinated, long-term campaigns with specific goals are rarely undertaken and tactics often bog down into predictable and increasingly ineffective patterns. If there is one thing the animal rights movement can teach other movements is that a listserv, mass membership, two meetings a week or a zine on do-it-yourself herb gardening can never replace energy, lean organization, clear objectives, perseverance and innovative, strategically targeted direct action.
But is such an understanding possible? If it is not, we already have a taste of what the future holds for us. Our future is being played out right now inside a federal courtroom in Trenton, NJ against six young activists who were bold enough to stand by their conscience and act. They stand there now, as much for us and our liberties as for the lives of the animals they chose to defend. We must stand with them, not because we wish to save ourselves, but because our liberation is bound up in theirs.