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Trial By Fire: The SHAC7 and the Future of Democracy

By Steven Best and Richard Kahn

"The FBI has made the prevention and investigation of animal rights extremists and eco-terrorism ...a domestic terrorism investigative priority." – John E. Lewis, Deputy Assistant FBI Director in Counterterrorism, speaking to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, May 2004

“Ah, but in such an ugly time, the true protest is beauty.” – Phil Ochs, Songwriter

Since 1999, Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) activists in the UK and US have waged an aggressive direct action campaign against Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS), an insidious animal testing company notorious for extreme animal abuse (torturing and killing 500 animals a day) and manipulated research data. SHAC roared onto the historical stage by combining a shrewd knowledge of the law, no nonsense direct action tactics, and a singular focus on one corporation that represents the evils of the entire vivisection industry. From email and phone blockades to raucous home demonstrations, SHACtivists have attacked HLS and pressured over 100 companies to abandon financial ties to the vivisection firm. By 2001, the SHAC movement drove down HLS stock values from $15/share to less than $1/share. Smelling profit emanating from animal bloodshed, investment banking firm Stephens Inc. stepped in to save HLS from bankruptcy. But, as happened to so many companies before them, eventually Stephens too could not withstand the intense political heat and so fled the SHAC kitchen. Today, as HLS struggles for solvency, SHAC predicts its immanent demise.

Growing increasingly powerful through high-pressure tactics that take the fight to HLS and their supporters rather than to corrupt legislatures, the SHAC movement poses a clear and present danger to animal exploitation industries and the state that serves them. Staggered and driven into the ropes, it was certain that SHAC’s opponents would fight back. Throwing futile jabs here and there, the vivisection industry and the state recently teamed up to mount a major counterattack. On May 26, 2004, a police dragnet rounded up seven prominent animal rights activists in New Jersey, New York, Washington, and California. Hordes of agents from the FBI, Secret Service, and other law agencies stormed into the activists’ homes at the crack of dawn, guns drawn and helicopters hovering above. Handcuffing those struggling for a better world, the state claimed another victory in its phony “war against terror.”

The “SHAC7” are Kevin Jonas, Lauren Gazzola, Jacob Conroy, Darius Fullmer, John McGee, Andrew Stepanian, and Joshua Harper. The government has issued a five count federal indictment that charges each activist, and SHAC USA, with violations of the 1992 Animal Enterprise Protection Act, the first law that explicitly seeks to protect animal exploitation industries from animal rights protests. Additionally, SHAC USA, Jonas, Gazzola, and Conroy were charged with conspiracy to stalk HLS-related employees across state lines, along with three counts of interstate stalking with the intent to induce fear of death or serious injury in their “victims.” All of the charges bring a maximum $250,000 fine each. The main charge of animal enterprise terrorism carries a maximum of three years in prison, while each of the charges of stalking or conspiracy to stalk brings a five-year maximum sentence.

Clearly, the state is now playing hard ball with the animal rights cause. The arrests came just over a year after the FBI’s domestic terrorism squad raided SHAC headquarters in New Jersey and on the heels of constant surveillance and harassment. Not coincidentally, the round up also followed shortly after numerous executives from animal exploitation industries appeared before a congressional committee to stigmatize the style of activism practiced by SHAC (and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) a form of terrorism and to plead for new legal measures to counter the increasingly effective direct action tactics of such groups. Following the arrests, Christopher Christie, United States attorney for New Jersey, described the government’s intention behind the arrests in dramatically ironic and perverse terms: “Our goal is to remove uncivilized people from civilized society.”

The federal indictment against the SHAC7 is a potential watershed in the history of the animal rights movement, for it represents the boldest governmental attack on activists to date, and it likely augurs a new wave of political repression in response to the growing effectiveness of militant animal liberation politics. Regardless of whether it should win or lose in this proceeding, the corporate-state machine seeks to cast an ominous shadow over activists who dare to exercise their First Amendment rights. Tellingly, corporate exploiters of animals want to respond to criticism and protest with demands for surveillance, harassment, intimidation, arrests, and appearances before grand juries.

This bold assault on the SHAC7, which seeks to kneecap their ability to directly challenge oppressive forces in society, demands a serious response from the entire spectrum of progressive activists – those struggling for human rights, animal rights, and the environment. “USA v. SHAC” should be a serious wake-up call to everyone: this is post-Constitutional America.

All the Lies Fit to Print

“In our time political speech and writing are largely defense of the indefensible.” – George Orwell

"I abhor vivisection with my whole soul. All the scientific discoveries stained with innocent blood I count as of no consequence." – Mahatma Gandhi

Unable to stand without massive corporate aid and state support, HLS is appropriately grateful to the government for arresting the SHAC7. In their media statement, HLS intoned: “The Company is heartened…to see justice done. So many people have been victimized by this lawless [SHAC] campaign. These indictments are in keeping with this nation’s long tradition of standing up to bullies and demonstrate the United States’ continued determination to insure the safety of its people.” Similarly, US Attorney Christie remarked for the state: “This is not activism. This is a group of lawless thugs attacking innocent men, women and children…Their business, quite frankly, is thuggery and intimidation.”

The statements made by HLS and Christie are grotesque distortions of SHAC, the US political system, and the vivisection industry as a whole. HLS is a victimizer, not a victim, and it perpetuates its crimes against the most unfortunate and defenseless victims of all – the animals enslaved in the dungeons and torture chambers of sham “science” and commercial interests. When the U.S. government actually protects and underwrites animal exploiters and demonizes animal activists like SHAC as “terrorists,” it places an added responsibility on all activists to speak truth to power: the true criminals are corporations that needlessly torment animals unto their deaths, and a government that defends those corporate interests while systematically violating its own Constitution and the right to free speech.

Far from insuring “the safety of its people,” the State’s main mission is to protect the property and profits of the Corporate Masters that it serves, whatever the political, social, or ecological costs, and no matter what the toll to the institutions of “democracy” (such as they are) or the dissidents exercising their rights. US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison and Guantanamo Bay, and religious extremists like Bush and Ashcroft who want to plunge their own nation into the same authoritarian abyss as their avowed enemy Al Qaeda are evidence of the bankruptcy of the “civilized society” upheld by Christie and the entire ruling elite.

Although corporations, politicians, and media pundits routinely denounce SHAC as anti-scientific, as an opponent to medical progress, and as an all-around misanthropic enemy of the people, these accusations stick better to such sludge-slingers themselves. In fact, SHAC strongly favors medical research so long as it has a sound ethical and scientific basic, but it argues that animal-based research does not meet either qualification. In their revisionist histories, vivisectors attribute key breakthroughs in medical progress to the use of animal experimentation, whereas credit really belongs to improved sanitation, epidemiology (human-based studies), and other factors that have nothing to do with maiming and poisoning animals.

Therefore, far from accelerating medical progress, there are good grounds to believe that biomedical research impedes it and thus, ironically, groups like SHAC, and not the vivisection establishment, are the catalysts for genuine scientific advancement. Indeed, a November 17, 2003, Frontline documentary on PBS highlighted the well-known fact that scores of drugs tested “safely” on animals cause serious injury and death to patients. The show exposed the politics behind pharmaceutical “science,” revealing how the FDA dances to the tune of the drug industry - the country’s top grossing business sector. As Frontline discovered, the FDA’s process to approve drugs as “safe” for humans most questionably relies on the research of the drug companies themselves. Worse still, FDA drug reviewing whistleblowers report that the agency often ignores, or covers up, revealed contraindications and deadly side effects in order to give favorable reviews to drugs with large profit potential.

As groups like SHAC peer into research cages, then, what consistently leaps out are not just terrified animals, but the suppressed truths of widespread governmental corruption, the politicization of research and medicine, and the merciless production of animal suffering and death as the foundation for medical profits. In a situation where, according to genetic researcher Dr. Allen Roses, “The vast majority of drugs only work in 30 or 50% of the people,” and prescription drugs are one of the leading causes of death, the larger agenda and significance of SHAC becomes clear. While those who have the most to suffer financially from the liberation of animals caricature uncompromising animal activists as lawless agents of chaos, history will be better served when SHAC, and other outspoken critics of the vivisection and animal cruelty industries, are portrayed as leading the fight for animal and human rights.

The Kangaroo Courts of Capitalism

“The political motivation of these indictments should be clear…rich and powerful people are now using their connected and influential friends…in order to retaliate against us, and worse, to send a message to anyone else who would dare stand in the way of speciesism.” – Josh Harper, SHAC7 defendant

"This trial is a travesty. It's a travesty of a mockery of a sham of a mockery of a travesty of two mockeries of a sham." – Woody Allen, Bananas

While the Western legal system cloaks itself in the trappings of rationality and enlightened justice, the simple truth is that law, of its own will and dynamic, does not generally evolve in order to better accord with ethics. Rather, the legislative system constantly changes within a contested terrain, where a wide range of interested parties struggle for power and position. The battle over policy is hardly evenly matched or wholly fair, for as dictated by the Golden Rule of capitalism, those with the gold make the rules. Increasingly, the powerful factions who drive the direction of legislation in this country are the secretive, well-protected, massive corporate entities that Noam Chomsky characterizes as “private tyrannies.” However, activist organizations such as SHAC demonstrate that, even in a battle with Goliath, David can win if armed with enough smarts and determination.

The SHAC movement has been enormously effective in large part due to its strategy of demonstrating against “tertiary targets,” those companies and people that support HLS and which help it to operate, but which are not technically themselves “animal enterprises.” As present law only allows for the prosecution of direct activists when they physically disrupt the process of exploiting animals, the corporate-state complex has felt the need to respond by proposing amendment of old legislation and enactment of new laws. It is no coincidence, then, that little more than a week before the May 26 raid on the SHAC7, a phalanx of high-level vivisectors and animal industry representatives marched into the Senate Committee on the Judiciary in order to carp about the inadequacy of existing regulations to crush SHAC and other militant animal rights groups.

On May 18, 2004, Chair of the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) took opinions from US Attorney McGregor Scott; the FBI Deputy Assistant Director for Counterterrorism, John E. Lewis; the Senior Vice Presidents of Chiron Corporation (a noxious puppy killer associated with HLS) and Yum! Brands Inc. (the super-sized parent company behind most well known fast food chains), William Green and Jonathan Blum; and the Director of the Yerkes Primate Center, Dr. Stuart Zola. One after another, these motley billion-dollar boys shamelessly tried to cast themselves, their colleagues, and their family members as innocent victims of animal rights hooligans as they appealed for assistance in stopping what they claimed amounts to “terrorism.” Indeed, to listen to their combined testimony, the United States of America is a sort of uncontrolled Baghdad or Kabul war zone, besieged by marauding animal militias, rather than a highly centralized network of power bent on repressing dissent and regulating everyday life for the capital mongers.

The 2001 passage of the USA Patriot act and its vilification of “domestic terrorism” was by no means the first state volley in the war against animal liberation. For over a decade, animal exploitation industries and the state have collaborated to create laws intended to protect corporations and researchers from animal rights activists. In 1992, the federal government enacted the first major law designed to strike at the freedom of protest and dissent, the Title 18 Animal Enterprise Protection Act (AEPA), which contains subsection 43 on “Animal enterprise terrorism.” The law targets anyone who “intentionally damages or causes the loss of any property (including animals or records) used by the animal enterprise, or conspires to do so.” It also seeks to make an offender of whomever “travels in interstate or foreign commerce, or uses or causes to be used the mail or any facility in interstate or foreign commerce for the purpose of causing physical disruption to the functioning of an animal enterprise.” Yet, if the corporate-state complex has its way, Sen. Hatch will soon introduce new legislation that makes the legal right to transform the way institutions conduct themselves – through measures such as protests, demonstrations, and boycotts – a felony crime.

William Green of Chiron Corporation, typified the whining before the Judiciary Committee when he asked Congress to send a stronger message to animal and earth activists and open the door to greater surveillance by federal, state, and local officials. Even though Chiron’s revenue grew to $1.8 billion in 2003, apparently the $2.5 million in lost earnings caused by SHAC, along with the tarnishing of the corporation’s reputation, makes SHAC enough of a threat that biotechnology companies and vivisectors want Congress to gut the Constitution to protect assumed corporate “rights” to profit from animal cruelty and scientific fraud. Thus, Green asked Congress to impose harsh 10-year sentences on the anti-vivisection “terrorists” and to define “animal enterprise” in broader terms that include, not only all manner of organizations that use animals, but the non-animal enterprises that contract with these outfits as well. Again, the reason for this is plain – to date, SHAC has outwitted the corporate-biased legal system by carefully utilizing the First Amendment to coordinate economic strikes against its enemies. By avoiding tactics that center on illegal property destruction, while instead reporting on militant actions, running interference campaigns upon corporate communication systems with cyber-blockades, and demanding civic accountability through organized home demonstrations, SHAC takes full advantage of its legal rights.

Importantly, not everyone in government is moved by the hysterics of the animal research community. The Committee’s minority leader, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), refused even to be present for this corporate conspiracy masked as a Senate hearing. Instead, Leahy wrote a statement for the public record that vilified the proceedings, wherein he remarked that “most Americans would not consider the harassment of animal testing facilities to be ’terrorism,’ any more than they would consider anti-globalization protestors or anti-war protestors or women’s health activists to be terrorists.” As he wondered aloud why not a single animal rights advocate was brought before the Committee in a hearing supposedly designed to investigate “Animal Rights: Activism vs. Criminality,” Leahy also repeated his request for an oversight hearing with Attorney General John Ashcroft, who had dodged questioning from the Committee for over a year.

Leahy’s frustration at not being able to oversee the nation’s top prosecutor is perhaps aimed at Committee Chairman Hatch, who is a sort of Dr. Evil to Ashcroft’s Mini-Me. Hatch, like Ashcroft, was a primary drafter and supporter of the Patriot Act, and both have a penchant for writing nationalistic Christian music that eerily conflates healing our land with obeying an ambiguous power that is both Christ and Bush. But Hatch alone, the soft-spoken Mormon from the Great Salt Lake, distinguishes himself as the pharmaceutical industry’s leading spokesman in the closed chambers of legislation. Besides operating his own “nutritional” corporation, Pharmics, Inc., Hatch has received far and away the most money (in 2000, nearly twice as much as the next congressperson) from an industry laden with animal research and deeply threatened by committed animal advocates. As Chair of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee, he is well positioned to lobby for and draft statutes specifically designed to neutralize vitamins S, H, A, and C.

First Amendment Controversies

“Bush's War on Terrorism is no longer limited to Al Qaeda or Osama Bin Laden… The rounding up of [SHAC] activists should set off alarms heard by every social movement in the United States: This "war" is about protecting corporate and political interests under the guise of fighting terrorism.” – Will Potter

“Let Freedom Ring the Doorbell!” – SHAC campaign ad

The key issue for American citizens in the indictment of the SHAC7 concerns the defendants’ First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and association. Critics of direct action protest, such as those who testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, invariably claim that they respect the right to dissent, distinguishing “legitimate” (and easily contained) expressions of criticism and objection from those involving alleged criminal action. In this respect, according to US Attorney Christie, the SHAC7 defendants were "exhorting and encouraging" actions not protected by the constitution.

The strategy of the corporate-state is to define SHAC-styled direct action as beyond the scope of constitutional protection. They seek to narrow the meaning of the First Amendment, and therefore to subject SHAC and other activists to an increasingly broad scope of criminal prosecution. Key questions, then, emerge from the United States’ attempt to prosecute SHAC: Do corporations and the state, as they claim, really respect the First Amendment and the democratic political sensibilities behind it? Are SHAC actions legal or illegal expressions of dissent? And, if they are illegal, do they constitute a special form of terrorism deserving of federal injunction, or are the myriad of extant laws capable of penalizing specific acts of civil disobedience sufficient?

The latitude of the First Amendment is broad but, as is widely understood, rights are not absolute. The First Amendment does not grant individuals unqualified freedom to say or do anything they desire as a matter of civic right. According to classical liberal doctrine, such as formulated by J.S. Mill, liberties extend to the point where one’s freedom impinges upon the good or freedom of another. Thus, no one has the right to injure, assault, or take the life of another endowed with rights. That, of course, is the theory; in American political practice, restrictions on liberty are frequently applied to consumers and citizens alike, but rarely to corporations who – capitalizing on the predatory logic of property rights – systematically exploit humans, animals, and the environment to their own advantage.

While there have been some strong defenses of the First Amendment by the US Supreme Court, such as the protection of the Ku Klux Klan’s use of hate speech, there have also been severe lapses of judgment. Indeed, the entire last century is scarred by egregious Constitutional violations, ranging from the Red Scare of the 1920s, the loyalty oaths of the 1930s, and Sen. McCarthy’s witch hunts in the 1950s, to the FBI COINTELPRO operations of the 1960s and 1970s and the passage of the USA Patriot Act in 2001. US history is riddled with precedents that demonstrate systematic and sweeping violations of First Amendment rights, such that freedom of speech is the exception not the rule of life in the USA.

The indictment of the SHAC7 is just one of many clear indicators that we have entered into yet another chilling period of social repression and the quelling of dissent. While the media have largely focused public attention on Bush’s imperial Pax Americana, domestic police and federal agents have violently repressed demonstrations, surveilled legal organizations, collected and disseminated information on activists, and summoned individuals to grand juries in the attempt to intimidate and coerce information. Within this conservative social climate, as people are besieged by monopolistic capitalism, quasi-fascistic patriotism, religious ranting, and cultural paranoia, the corporate-state complex is using SHAC to launch its latest attack upon the Bill of Rights.

Put in this context, SHAC clearly is within its rights to criticize HLS, Chiron, and other corporations for exploiting animals. As established in landmark rulings by the Supreme Court, such as Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969), the First Amendment grants citizens the right to free speech up to the point of advocating violence toward others in such a way that violent actions might result as an immediate and immanent threat of one’s speech. SHAC reports on violent actions taken by individuals in groups such as the ALF or Revolutionary Cells and it posts home addresses and personal information of HLS employees or affiliates. But SHAC does not advocate violence against anyone, certainly not in any manner that incites immediate and imminent criminal actions.

Moreover, critics never trouble themselves with the crucial distinction between SHAC USA Inc., an aboveground, legal, and non-violent organization, and the SHAC movement, comprised of a wide-range of activists united against HLS that sometimes use illegal tactics and may have an underground presence. In its economically and politically motivated confusion, the corporate-state complex has targeted SHAC USA Inc. rather than the shadowy SHAC movement. In NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co. (1982), the Supreme Court ruled that an organization cannot be held accountable for actions of its members or followers; thus, SHAC USA Inc. is not responsible for the actions of the SHAC movement. To make the state’s case against SHAC even more difficult, the Supreme Court ruled in 2003 that anti-abortionists had the legal right to home demonstrations against abortion rights advocates, a decision that has clear implications for SHAC’s tactics against HLS.

Steal This System!

“Our strategy was to give Judge Hoffman a heart attack. We gave the court system a heart attack, which is even better.” – Jerry Rubin, Member of the Chicago7

“Whatever they throw at us, we just flow like a river.” – Heather Avery, SHAC UK activist

Just as the Chicago7 represented the battle for human rights in the 1960s, so the SHAC7 dramatize animal rights as a key struggle of our day and as the logical extension of modern democratic traditions. Stigmatized as “terrorists,” the only crime these activists have committed is to defend innocent animals from barbaric exploitation and to uncompromisingly demand an end to corporate evil and scientific fraud. Like the Chicago7 before them, the corporate-state complex casts the SHAC7 as ugly hoodlums and a threat to “civilized” values, even though in their unflinching commitment to actualize a better and more peaceable world for humans and animals alike, these activists represent what is best about the US political system. For all those who will not rise from the couch, or even vote, due to a long developing political cynicism, may the SHAC7 re-ignite their hope for progressive change. Armed with little more than a website, a bullhorn, and the will to make a difference with their lives, SHACtivists have leveled an industry juggernaut and sent a loud message to every animal exploitation industry that eventually they will reap what they sow.

These are difficult times for free speech. Bush’s Terror War and its many cheerleaders instituted a fascist mandate against dissent and political action across the country, along with an apology for the status-quo that only the most blatant failures in the war against Iraq were able to dent. Meanwhile, conservative outrage at media incidents such as Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” and Howard Stern’s sexual and political antics resulted in the Federal Communications Commission bringing staggering fines for “obscenity,” a move designed to send a message to everyone but Clear Channel that staying within the straightjacket of “free speech” is enlightened self-interest. Undaunted by state repression, SHAC continues to hammer away at HLS as it buttresses a sagging Constitution. Unafraid to use its grassroots power like a weapon of mass destruction, some may find SHAC to be intimidating for no other reason than it does the apparently unthinkable: it refuses to surrender its rights to those so deeply mired in what is wrong.

The point of the present indictment has less to do with a viable case against SHAC than with sending a chilling message to anyone who dares to assert their First Amendment rights in meaningful protest against Machiavellian powers. While SHAC has never been the sort of outfit, like the Humane Society of the United States, to “go to Washington” and plead its case amidst suits, ties, and stars-and-stripes lapel pins, the SHAC7 now relish the opportunity to further expose HLS in the hypocritical halls of law.

During the greatest political trial of the 1960s, Chicago7 members like Abbie Hoffmann freely showed their contempt for the court through subversive comic theater, such as when Hoffman arrived dressed in judge’s robes, which he then stomped upon. Black Panther member Bobby Seale was bound, gagged, and then tried separately after refusing the court’s right to treat him as anything but an uncooperative prisoner of war. Meanwhile, the defense attorney William Kunstler dragged the proceedings out for months by bringing a virtual “who’s who” of the counterculture into the trial to testify as witnesses against the state.

The SHAC7 have promised no less a challenge for what will surely amount to one of the great domestic political trials of this era. They intend to convert crisis into opportunity by turning the tables against their accusers and exposing the real criminals and terrorists. In a far more visible public setting than they typically are accorded, SHAC welcomes the indictment in order to expose the heinous crimes of HLS, the fraud of vivisection, and the corruption of the state and legal system, as they will champion constitutional rights and the just cause of animal liberation.

Just as McDonald’s foolishly took on British activists Heather Steel and Dave Morris for the crime of exposing their lies in pamphlets, so the intimidation tactics of HLS and the state may backfire dramatically. Ongoing waves of arrests in Pennsylvania, California, New York, and elsewhere, in the ongoing war against HLS, demonstrate that the SHAC movement has redoubled its efforts as a blowback to the corporate-state repression directed against it, and that HLS and the vivisection industry may be in for a good PR bruising.

The assault on the SHAC7 in the era of the Patriot Act and “domestic terrorism” is a monumental event in the history of the animal rights movement. Let there be no mistake: the federal prosecution of the SHAC7 is an attack on everyone who militates for the ideals of democracy, rights, freedom, and justice. As such, all those fighting for progressive causes of any kind should come now to SHAC’s defense. Already, there are signs of solidarity and evidence of a wider recognition of the significance of the SHAC7’s indictment. Animal rights activists – both critics and supporters of SHAC - are organizing speaking tours and fundraisers to help pay for legal expenses. Lisa Lange, communications director for PETA, told the New Jersey Star-Ledger that the SHAC7 were “long-time activists and well-respected” as she defended the need for militant action where legal systems are unresponsive to calls for justice. An even more important sign, because it emerged from the social justice community, was a recent Z-Magazine article that grasped the relevance of the SHAC7 indictment for all protest movements. As stated by author, Will Potter: “Their only chance is for activists of all social movements – regardless of their political views – to support them, and oppose the assault on basic civil liberties. Otherwise, in Bush's America, we could all be terrorists.”

It remains to be seen if activists involved in other causes will truly understand the indictment of the SHAC7 in its broadest social and historical context, thereby showing solidarity with the myriad of SHACtivists and other direct action militants on the front lines of protest, making sure that their voices are anything but a whisper. Meanwhile, the animal liberation cause continues to grow throughout the world, establishing itself as both an heir of the great human liberation movements and a transcendent force that carries the fight for rights, justice, and equality toward its logical fulfillment. The struggle for “civilization” continues

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