Recently, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) furnished an update,“From Push to Shove,” on two movements: environmentalism and animal rights. The ominous subtitle: “Radical environmental and animal-rights groups have always drawn the line at targeting humans. Not anymore.”
Radical animal rights groups targeting humans?
Humans are animals. Animal rights advocates have made a special point of saying that. To borrow Bentham’s famous phrase, our task is to transcend that “insuperable line” between ourselves and other sentient beings, and to ask ourselves, when defining our moral community, “can they suffer?” Humans can suffer, and no movement would target humans on its way to a peaceful society.
This essay, therefore, will critique SPLC for portraying a socially beneficial movement as something to fear and loathe; and it will critique activists who glorify aggression and thereby thwart the central point of the movement. We bear in mind that “radical” means “of the root,” and radical animal rights advocates are people who work at the roots of oppression. Radical animal rights advocates are keenly aware that violence against animals will not cease as long as people encourage acts of intimidation and violence against other humans.
SPLC’s portrayal of the movement.
The mainstream media rarely notice the peacemakers, preferring to showcase all things salacious and sensational. SPLC’s selective reporting carries on this unfortunate trend, helping to marginalize a movement before its core arguments can be understood by the wider public. SPLC perpetuates another infelicitous trend as well: the association of foreign origins with criminality. Its report calls the Earth Liberation Front “an outgrowth of the European animal-rights movement more than American environmentalism,” and reports that European activists “are seen by many as dangerous and reckless criminals” who “often live up to the billing.” Thus, when we read of a ski resort arson, responsible for $12 million in damage and claimed by the Earth Liberation Front, SPLC fails to challenge us to unearth the roots of violence in our society. Instead, we can blame the matter on alien influences.
SPLC associates such activities with the animal-rights movement, devoting most of its critique to an anti-vivisection project called Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) — a modern campaign which, SPLC states, sets “a new standard for eco-terrorism.” SPLC observes that protestors sympathetic to SHAC physically attacked the managing director of the animal-testing firm Huntingdon Life Sciences in England. To tie this with events closer to home, SPLC draws on “the animal-rights conference held every year in the Washington, D.C. area on the week of July 4.”
The D.C. event, while drawing more attendees and public curiosity than other conferences, is not an animal-rights event at all, but rather an incoherent jumble of viewpoints, decorated with aspiring politicians and fading celebrities. A quote from 2001 panelist Bruce Friedrich of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PeTA) exemplifies the incoherence of the D.C. event:
“If we really believe that animals have the same right to be free from pain and suffering at our hands, then of course we’re going to be blowing things up and smashing windows… I think it’s a great way to bring about animal liberation, considering the level of suffering, the atrocities…I think it’s perfectly appropriate for people to take bricks and toss them through the windows… Hallelujah to the people who are willing to do it.”
The conference audience applauded.
Tantrums for the animals
In the 1969 case of Brandenburg v. Ohio, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a speaker could not be punished for advocacy of even lawless action unless the speech is (1) directed at producing imminent lawless conduct, and (2) likely to result in such conduct.
Once we understand that speech is not, and should not be, criminal unto itself, we can ask whether Friedrich’s words are effective. Brick-throwing rhetoric gives the appearance of isolated tantrums rather than a movement. Like sexist stunts promoted by some attention-seeking groups (including Friedrich’s PeTA), this rhetoric treats publicity itself as the message. Although they might scare researchers and fast-food managers, threats of violence obstruct the effort to cultivate a broad understanding of animal rights. Understanding comes not through intimidation, but upon finding common ground.
Much as feminists have set up camps outside nuclear bases, animal activists set up a camp outside Huntington Life Sciences in Cambridge, England. One night at the camp, a visitor appeared, shouting angrily that his spouse had received a disparaging holiday card. The card had obviously not endeared its cause to its recipients, for the visitor, shaking in rage, hurled angry words at the camp. Then the visitor, just before turning away, added: “She doesn’t even work here any more!” One person approached the visitor, saying, “Your wife worked in there? My god; is she ok?” The aggression melted. The visitor began to tell the activist how upsetting the laboratory work had been for his life partner, who was still ill from horror and guilt. The visitor walked slowly away from the camp, telling the protestors of his hope that one day Huntingdon will close forever.
Another activist, working at an information table, spoke with a former animal technician who bred cats for research. The technician told of quitting the job once it clicked just what sort of fate lay in store for all her “cuddly kittens.” Thousands of similar stories make up the reality of this issue — stories that deserve consideration and analysis.
Instead, SPLC provides “Eco-violence: The Record” — an unsystematic list of actions attributed to environmental and animal protectionists from the notorious to the obscure. The List spans two decades. We see “arsons, fire-bombings, assaults, and attacks on animal-based businesses and laboratories.” There are a few animal releases. Other listed items include claims by alleged activists for unsuccessful attempts at property damage; still more incidents are attributed to the Animal Liberation Front by federal investigators, but without convictions. SPLC separately lists six incidents of pie-throwing, four carried out by PeTA and two by the “Biotic Baking Brigade.” A pie used by the latter group, identified as banana cream, ended up on a Sierra Club staffer’s face. The Animal Liberation Front, we learn, left a malodorous chemical in a McDonald’s bathroom.
Disaggregating “direct action” from illegal action.
In this list of “direct actions,” SPLC also reports an incident in which activists reportedly broke Bank of America windows on the grounds that the bank ran a mutual fund scheme through Stephens Inc., an investment firm that, in turn, backed the vivisection giant Huntington Life Sciences.
Logically, direct action is an act tied directly to a specific intended result. For example:
- A community association does not wait for official action to stop speeding drivers from compromising safety in a residential area: it builds speed bumps.
- Learning of government plans to drill for oil in the Arctic Refuge, members of the Gwich’in tribe set up camp in the reserve to preclude the drilling.
- A mass sit-in at a vivisection laboratory compels it to cease operations.
Broken bank windows play no direct role in hindering vivisection — surely no more than a vigil or sit-in. SPLC repeats an error made by those under its own critique by discussing “direct action” as synonymous with illegal action.
The folly of inviting repression
Our laws do not side with animals. Professor Gary Francione has explained that animals are legal property, and that the job of the legal system is to protect property interests, thus protecting the owners, sellers, and buyers of animals. Realism dictates that violent challengers of the law will ultimately lose any arms race with the government. When malcontents are out-financed, out-bullied and undone, nothing remains to show for their efforts but repression. Can animal advocacy afford that?
SPLC highlights the torching of a New York construction site for several luxury homes. Authorities charged four teens, including 19-year-old Connor Cash, with arson-related acts. Later — on the 19th of September 2001 — Cash was indicted by a federal grand jury on a charge of providing material support to terrorists.9 Some believe the new charge was lodged to equate Cash with the terrorists who carried out the September hijackings.
Barry W. Mawn, the head of the FBI’s New York office, called the youths terrorists whose “campaign of violent crime has stretched from the Pacific Coast to the Rocky Mountains to the Midwest.” The teens’ indictments were announced through The New York Times as “the first major infiltration by law enforcement into more than $30 million worth of damage for which Earth Liberation Front has claimed responsibility.” The teens’ lawyers, however, said that the youths heard of the Earth Liberation Front over the Internet but had no connection to its leadership. The spokesperson who issues communiqués announcing Earth Liberation Front actions denied having heard of the teens. As Matthew Rammelkamp prepared to plead guilty to arson conspiracy, the judge looked down from the bench and asked if he had used any drugs. Replied the 16-year-old, “I’ve taken medicine for acne.”
Notwithstanding the serious nature of arson, it is troubling to see SPLC bolster those who would stir up murderous attitudes about people who may well be, as a lawyer for one defendant put it, “a kid in crisis.” A more productive effort would challenge society to ask serious questions about the nature of that crisis, and why young people would feel pressed to act so desperately.
What is terrorism?
It is important to distinguish terrorism from every act of intimidation or property damage. Both the Animal Liberation Front and the Earth Liberation Front, groups which conduct economic sabotage, maintain a policy of respect for life and non-violence to people. Criminologists contend that “terrorism” must include, among other acts, violations of human rights. The U.S. government defines (or misdefines) terrorism as “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”
Although intimidation is usually not a violation of human rights by world standards, social activists should ask whether, by choosing such methods, they may be setting the stage for counterproductive actions. It is not necessarily reverence for private property that causes an activist to prefer a mass sit-in to an act of arson by a handful of individuals.
Great would be the pity if the public believes Ingrid Newkirk, president of PeTA, speaks credibly for the movement. “Our nonviolent tactics are not as effective,” laments Newkirk. “We ask nicely for years and get nothing. Someone makes a threat, and it works.” Newkirk does not cite any threat which has worked. Current statistics reflecting various forms of animal exploitation, from fur sales to milk consumption to genetic engineering, indicate that society has yet to accept the concept of animal rights on a serious scale. In areas where the public has begun to actively consider the theory — for example, in the area of cosmetics testing — the gains are results of information rather than intimidation. Animal rights advocates have presented the current ethical debate about primates in experiments. Their informational campaign worked: it has, so far, led to prohibitions of research on nonhuman apes in Britain and New Zealand.
People who opt instead for trendy and sensational methods turn a political movement into a circus hardly imaginable in any lasting liberation movement. Industry spokespeople find it easy to deride such activity. Even when serious matters such as world hunger or diseases such as E-coli or BSE come up, activists who have worked to raise these issues are not considered credible commentators, and consequently the root causes of the disasters go ignored.
One pair of activists from Greenpeace London, gardener Helen Steel and former mail carrier Dave Morris, used the pen instead of the incendiary device. By defending leaflets they handed out to potential customers, Steel and Morris braved corporate ire in the now-famous McLibel case, which led to a public debate about the status of animals, about litter and pollution, about corporate mistreatment of workers. SPLC says nothing about that particular foreign influence although the libel case surrounding it marked a pivotal change in the public image of the world’s most famous converter of animals into food.
Vivisection: the case for encouraging public debate
Huntingdon Life Sciences, which tests materials on animals for concerns such as BASF, Bayer, Bristol Myers Squibb, British Petroleum, DuPont, Pfizer, Shell, and the Society of the Plastics Industry, has attracted attention for two decades. In 1981, Sarah Kite, working undercover in the company, saw beagles sickened with pesticides, dental products, and cling film. In the 1990s, an exposé showed a Huntingdon staffer punching puppies in the face. In 2000, England’s Daily Express reported Huntingdon research ordered by Novartis subsidiary Imutran Ltd., involving the transplantation of tissues from genetically-altered piglets to young monkeys’ necks and abdomens. In a triumph for freedom of information, the ensuing controversy addressed the potential of cross-species transplantation to introduce new infections into the human population. But to the biotech companies, the publicity was troubling. Huge profits were at stake: analysts predict a market worth £6 billion a year for the first firm to achieve stable transplants from nonhumans into humans. So the pharmaceutical companies covered up their failings — reportedly with government complicity.
As this report goes to press, a stack of confidential documents on vivisection has been released to the press, following the defeat of an injunction obtained by drug companies two and a half years ago. The documents, which chart the race to supply an unlimited supply of animal organs for medical purposes, reveal “a litany of failings conducted in Huntington’s laboratories between 1994 and 2000.” In 1995, Imutran announced that it would be ready to transplant pig hearts into humans within a year. Yet the documents show Novartis nowhere near that goal. Numerous deaths of primates are attributed to technical failures.
Government involvement comes to light through these documents. An Imutran memo states that the British government “will attempt to get the kidney transplants classified as ‘moderate,’ ensuring that it is easier for Imutran to receive a license and ignoring the ‘severe’ nature of these programmes.” Government officials reassured Imutran on several occasions that a key licensing meeting would be a “rubber-stamping” exercise.
The release of this information was won by Uncaged Campaigns, an animal-rights group that defeated the pharmaceutical companies’ efforts to maintain secrecy. Uncaged pointed out the overwhelming public interest on a highly sensitive area of policy.
A striking finding revealed that the British government approved experiments with the intention of using sick babies as the first trial recipients for nonhuman hearts. History is replete with examples of dangerous experiments being performed on vulnerable subjects.
Scientists performed the first chimpanzee heart transplant on Boyd Rush, a deaf person with an underprivileged background who entered the hospital unconscious; a chimpanzee kidney transplant was performed on Jefferson Davis who, lying in a New Orleans charity hospital, agreed after doctors told him he would die otherwise. In 1984, researchers performed an experimental baboon heart transplant on a dying “Baby Fae” with her mother’s questionable consent. Three weeks later, the baby died.
At its readers’ peril does the Southern Poverty Law Center ignore the significant role of activists who choose to exert informational pressure to challenge corporate research. The website of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) both informs its visitors about the ethical and health issues related to the use of nonhuman animals in human medicine and enables those visitors to send an “e-protest” to the Medical Research Council asking it to stop all experiments on nonhuman primates. The value of the right to both to communicate and to receive this and similar speech is central to our traditional freedom of speech.
The importance of preserving the right of association
Advocates for a positive, peaceful society should also be mindful of the political role of association. The right of association has been seen as vital ever since the U.S. Supreme Court first protected the NAACP from harassment by southern states by barring compelled disclosure of its membership lists. In the 1960s, when Congress outlawed membership in the Communist Party, the Supreme Court cautioned that a “blanket prohibition of association with a group having both legal and illegal aims” would pose “a real danger that legitimate political expression or association would be impaired.”
The stakes were high. Notably, even accepting the government has a compelling interest in countering violent revolution, the Court insisted that “guilt by association … has no place here.” Thus emerged the principle of individual culpability: the government may not punish an individual for associating with a group that engages in legal activities unless it proves the person’s specific intent to further an illegal action of that group.
As SPLC supporters undoubtedly know, politics in a democratic society requires collective action. Indeed, the SPLC quotes a subject of its report paraphrasing John F. Kennedy: “If you make peaceful revolution impossible, you make violent revolution inevitable.” Unfortunately, the SPLC overlooks the quote’s merit by using it as part of its parade of horribles. Although it certainly need not condone violence, SPLC errs in reading Kennedy’s comment as a threat. Like the right of people to speak freely, their right to associate serves as a safety valve.
Jumping to conclusions?
In December of 2002, the British government covered Huntingdon Life Sciences with emergency insurance when the world’s largest insurance broker, Marsh & McLennan, bowed out after paying millions for security services. Protests have also forced Huntingdon to move its stock market listing from London to the U.S., where the company is plagued with continued difficulties trading its shares. By the end of February 2003, a mere month’s campaign of intimidation forced auditing giant Deloitte & Touche to end their relationship with Huntington. The contact details of managers and their secretaries were sent to more than 8,000 activists, who bombarded e-mail addresses and jammed mobile phones with software capable of ringing a number 500 times an hour. Other employees reported paint on their cars and homes.
SPLC warns that such campaigns presage deliberate acts of bodily harm. For “a cautionary tale” SPLC stretches to the Netherlands to find an “apparent eco-assassination,” observing that last year’s killing of Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn “sent shockwaves through the environmental activists” — thus indicating that environmentalists reviled the shooting just as SPLC does. Volkert van der Graaf was sentenced in April of 2003. Accounts of the court case consistently note that Fortuyn fiercely resisted immigration, and that van der Graaf’s stated motive was the danger Fortuyn posed to disenfranchised social groups such as migrants. SPLC, like van der Graaf, is concerned with the plight of disenfranchised social groups. It would be ludicrous to point to van der Graaf’s lone, misguided act as indicative of SPLC’s role in a “terrorist” movement.
Conclusion: vegetarianism is direct action
Animal rights, like most emerging movements, is oft-ridiculed and misunderstood. Particular damage is done when a reputable organization such as the SPLC summarily condemns an entire ethical movement: Some socially-aware people will decline to learn about or support genuine animal rights work because of the SPLC portrayal. SPLC would do well to recall an old cliché about babies and bathwater.
Yet this baby will survive the throw. Over the past two decades, animal advocates have sparked a new awareness. In January 2003, the European Parliament mandated the end of most cosmetics testing on animals within the European Union by 2009, and, in a sort of grand legal boycott, ended European sales of cosmetics which have been tested on animals anywhere. British Liberal deputy Chris Davies declared, “This parliament, by a huge cross-party majority, has made clear that it will no longer accept that animals should be made to suffer for yet another product intended to flatter human vanity.” The message rang clearly. Animal advocates effectively persuaded Europe to change its mind.
Above all, the key change is diet, for it is absurd to discuss the rights of animals as we eat them. The vegetarian movement employs the most direct action of all. If our task is to encourage people to embrace non-violence, then one vegan recipe is worth more than all the incendiary devices in the world. We urge a pure vegetarian lifestyle, with the vital energy it brings into gatherings of people in potentially allied communities.
Friends of Animals provided the Southern Poverty Law Center with an advance copy of this article.
Read the Southern Poverty Law Center response to this article.