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Peter Young discusses sectarianism, finding post-prison role

Animal liberationist Peter Young discusses a number of topics in this May 7, 2011 interview.
Peter Young was indicted in 1998 for Animal Liberation Front raids he
carried out on fur farms across the Midwest. For seven years he was a
fugitive from the FBI, before being arrested and imprisoned for two
years. In 2007, he was released. Since then he's been a strong,
aboveground defender of direct action. I interviewed him over the
phone May 7.

JON HOCH: You're in Troy, (N.Y), this weekend for a screening of "Bold
Native." I was hoping you could explain how you got involved in that
project.

PETER YOUNG: The filmmakers for "Bold Native" contacted me about two
years ago. I don't think they had any real interest in getting me
involved. They just kind of wanted to talk to me and discuss the film.
So I went into their office in L.A. and did a little reading. I've
done a lot of acting in my life. (But) it's always been acting to get
me out of sketchy situations. Being in prison and having to lie to
people to get out situations. Or like, I don't know, I talked my way
into a Madonna concert one time. Things like that. Anyway, it's never
been acting in the sense that you think of it as an art form. So I did
a reading, and I guess they thought my ability was passable and they
gave me a small, small role in the film. Because of my ineptitude in
the art of acting it took about 40 takes. Well I don't want to say 40,
but it wouldn't be too far off. I couldn't remember my lines. Really,
what was interesting about that scene, I mean it was a short scene,
but at the end, Dennis, the screenwriter—I think probably because I
was having such a hard time with my lines—was just like, "You know
what? Let's just ad-lib this. You're somebody who thinks this ALF
action that this person is proposing to you is maybe not the smartest
idea. What would you say to somebody to sort of poke holes in a plan
they might have for an ALF raid?" So I just kind of went off the cuff.
I said, "Where are the animals going to go? Who are these people? Are
they solid? Are they going to snitch on you?" I kind of just went
through the ways I might disagree with a particular action. That
ad-lib stuff ended up being probably half of that scene. So I think it
worked out really well.

JH: It seems like the debates over welfarism and direct action are
getting increasingly heated these days. Do you think there's a certain
point where those debates stop being productive and start becoming
destructive internally?

PY: Absolutely. I mean I'm not somebody who has any sort of pipe
dreams of a movement that has the absence of infighting. Because I
know it's certainly inevitable when you have people who feel really
strongly about things. I have really strong opinions about tactical
issues and so forth. But yes there's no question that when you don't
treat somebody with at least the underlying assumption that they're
moving towards the same goals, when clearly they are, I think that's
when the problem starts. I can sit down with somebody, and they might
disagree with some of the things that I talk about or maybe some of
the things I've done. But as long as they can convince me that they're
moving towards the same goal and their tactics are based on the best
information available to them, then that's something we can build on.

JH: What do you think is the best way to avoid sectarianism that's harmful?

PY: I think the best way is to get rid of all the false dichotomies
that we've internalized. Just totally discard these ideas that you
need to choose between being an outreach activist or carrying out ALF
actions, for example. You can do both... I can tell you, when I was
getting involved in activism, I was like 18. We would be out
leafleting during the day with Vegan Outreach literature, and we'd be
out at night breaking butcher shop windows. There's really no reason
that those two things aren't compatible.

JH: You recently published a book that chronicles the first 30 years
of the ALF. Compiling the information, did you notice an effect the
Green Scare has had in the frequency of direct actions for animals?

PY: It's very hard to know what to attribute the ebb and flow and
different waves of direct action to. I think it would be probably too
premature to say for sure, "Yeah the Green Scare had an effect,"
although we have seen a drop in actions. The effect of the Green
Scare, I see it more clearly just in talking to people at events like
what we're going to have tonight. Just listening to people talk and
expressing fears about even participating in explicitly aboveground,
legal actions. That's where I really see it. But it was really
interesting putting that book together. A lot of trends emerge that
you don't see otherwise. It could be as simple as a surge in ALF
actions in a certain town that you can pretty clearly tie to the
popularity of certain vegan bands in the area at the time. A lot of
really interesting trends like that emerge.

JH: Did you notice a difference between the 1990s and the 2000s in
terms of the frequency and size of direct actions for animals?

PY: Yes, that was one of the most noticeable things. If you look in
the mid-90s, you have the largest number of actions and the ALF was
most prolific during that period... What you have (more recently) is
fewer actions, which is not a good thing, but the actions are bigger
in impact now than they've ever been. What you had in the '90s was a
series of scattershot-style actions, where you had people would break
out the windows of a butcher shop one night and spray paint a Dairy
Queen the next night. It was sort of this low-level smash attack, a
real basic sabotage-style action on a real retail target or restaurant
target. That's not maximizing the impact that ALF tactics have. If
you're going to go out and put yourself on the line, I think it's
really important you make sure you do something you can feel good
about going to prison for—maybe something a little more strategic than
just breaking a window. So what you have these days are fewer actions,
but when the actions do happen, they're actions of a high impact.
Either they're live liberations, where animals are being rescued
directly, or large-scale arsons. But you don't really see the window
breaking, the lock gluing as much anymore, which I think is a good
thing.

JH: After being released from prison, was it hard to find a new
aboveground role?

PY: Absolutely. Talking about how to make a difference for animals is
much less rewarding than actually going out and making that difference
yourself in the way you think is most effective. So it has been
difficult. There's no question about it. We all have to do our part.
I'm not carrying out ALF actions anymore. But I will always lend my
verbal support to people who do. I am able to reach a lot of people
through the hook that a prison sentence provides. Whether it's talking
to the media or getting invited to speak at events like tonight, it
does provide a really good opportunity to reach a lot of people. But I
can tell you it's not the same.

JH: So, going forward, what do you see as your role?

PY: That's a really good question. It's really something I've
struggled with since I got out. Where I live, we go out on the
weekends and we do protests, just like I was doing when I was 18. I
have a different take on that kind of tactic these days. I don't have
the same faith in protests that I once did. But I still feel like,
"Look it's a Saturday. I need to do something. I can't just do
nothing... " It's not easy having to go from living a way where there was
very little gap between my beliefs and what I was doing. It's very
hard to go from that to getting in front of an audience (and) just
talking to people. I've never been inspired by what anyone has said.
I've only been inspired by looking at what they do. Having to sort of
be downgraded to the role of the guy that gets up and talks to
people—you kind of feel like your best days are behind you,
sometimes... I think you could have 100 people on a speaking tour
full-time talking about some of the things I talk about, and at the
end of the day, does it translate into anything? Probably not.

JH: Do you plan on writing more books?

PY: Yes, I am. Actually the "A.L.F. Diary of Actions" book that you
mentioned came out of research that I was doing for another book that
I've been chipping away at for a while. I don't want to go into too
many of the details. But I think it's going to be really great. We'll
say its direct action history; we'll just leave it at that... so yes, I'm
working on some writing projects.

JH: How can aboveground activists better support the underground?

PY: One thing you can do is, and I feel obligated to say this having
been in this situation, if anybody ever finds themselves wanted for an
ALF action, and chooses to evade capture and become a fugitive, and
become hunted by the government, take them in. Give them shelter. Give
them money. Do whatever you can... (For) the people who haven't been
caught, or the people that frankly might want to carry out ALF
actions, but are wondering (or) have concerns about what might happen
if they were caught, I think it's really important we send them the
message that if they get caught they are going to be supported. The
best way to do that is to support the people who are in prison right
now through letters, through money. Do a website for them. There are a
lot of things you could do... And frankly, if anybody ever comes to
anyone else... saying, "There's something I want to do. I need the money
to do it." I'm certainly not going to encourage "material support for
terrorism;" that's really what the government would probably call it.
But I can tell you, if people want to support the ALF, the best thing
you can do is literally support the ALF. If you're not going to carry
out actions, and you know somebody who has a plan, I think those
people, if they really want to support the ALF, those people would
just give them money. Or rent them a car. Or even better, give homes,
give sanctuary to the animals they rescue. Because that's one of the
biggest obstacles to doing a live liberation-style action, not having
anywhere for the animals to go. If you have land, give land to those
animals. Those are the most hands-on things that you can do.