Second Open Letter to Southern Poverty Law Center: Friends of Animals Responds to SPLC’s Criticism of the Animal Rights Movement
27 June 2003
Mark Potok, Editor, Intelligence Project; and Morris Dees, Founder and Chief Trial Counsel Southern Poverty Law Center 400 Washington Avenue Montgomery, Alabama 36104
Dear Mark Potok and Morris Dees,
Thank you for your letter in reply to our article, “Of Babies, Bathwater, and the Animal Rights Movement.” As an organization dedicated to creating a society that strengthens the vulnerable, our group’s mission overlaps your own. We are keenly aware that violence against animals will not cease as long as people encourage acts of intimidation and violence against other humans. We wish to address the concerns expressed in your May letter as they relate to two matters: nonviolence in animal advocacy; and our concerns about the potential repercussions of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report and similar pieces on political association which is so important to a healthy and vibrant democracy. Then we shall take the liberty — briefly — of speaking of our goals, in hopes that our doing so will be of use to you in future writings on this topic.
I. Animal rights neither promotes nor condones acts of violence
SPLC Editor Mark Potok has stated that we give a “lukewarm condemnation of violence” and that we never “condemn the violence that is increasingly evident in these movements, opting instead to say merely that it is counter-productive and to depict those who promote it as the unimportant lunatic fringe of environmentalism and animal rights.” In fact, Friends of Animals president Priscilla Feral wrote to Morris Dees in the cover letter attached to our article: “The impulse to coerce and to do violence is the problem , regardless of how the victim is selected.” 1Did our article “Of Babies, Bathwater, and the Animal Rights Movement” merely say that violence is counter-productive — implying that we ought to use it if it worked? No. As our essay states, not only do “threats of violence obstruct the effort to cultivate a broad understanding of animal rights” but “activists who glorify aggression…thereby thwart the central point of the movement.”
It does not matter how many times one repeats misanthropic exhortations heard at some non-profit corporation’s fundraising event: the message of animal rights is nonviolence. We, too, teach tolerance. We denounce bullying conduct — by the government, by a corporation, or by an activist. Because we envision a society capable of transcending the paradigm in which controlling groups terrorize vulnerable groups, we know that meaningful change must come through peaceful action.
II. Guilt by association
“The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001,” your writers assert, “did not dampen the enthusiasm of America’s eco-radicals for direct action.” If that is meant, however obliquely, to compare the hideous September suicide missions that resulted in over three thousand deaths with a list of incidents ranging from arsons to contumacies such as pie throwing, the comparison is inapposite. Compare, by way of illustration, the position of The Austin Review, a conservative journal which in April 2003 printed a comment called “Enviro-Terror in Disguise.” As your piece does, The Austin Review quotes People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ Bruce Friedrich calling “blowing stuff up and smashing windows.a great way to bring about animal liberation”. Painting the whole movement with that frightful brushstroke, The Austin Review attempts to dissuade people from giving even to “docile” nonprofits because one might “assume” that “at least some of the members” of one group might have attended events organized by another.
We continue to be concerned about the idea that acts such as the 1998 burning of a Colorado ski resort derive from something that “was not a homegrown movement” and is more closely related to the European animal-rights movement than to U.S. environmentalism.2 First, comparing and contrasting degrees of violence between countries is unhelpful. The roots of violence must be acknowledged and addressed where violence occurs. (The SPLC has done an excellent job of pointing that out regularly in other contexts.) Moreover, describing the Vail arson as an extension of a foreign movement has troubling undertones at a time when the government applies especially draconian treatment to people it deems supporters of foreign terrorist organizations.3
We reject intimidation; intimidation is antithetical to a thinking person’s understanding of animal rights. Yet it is essential to note that, while all acts of terrorism intimidate, not all acts of imtimidation are terrorism. Forms of intimidation range from terrifying acts such as cross-burning and letter-bombs to common advertisements depicting burglaries to sell a home alarm system.
We wholeheartedly share your condemnation of cross-burnings and other odious conduct perpetrated by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, and we commend your commitment to freeing our society from such acts. That point understood, we are deeply troubled by a growing trend that would encourage virtually any form of protest to be deemed an act of terror. We must recall here that even members of the Klan are not officially designated by the government as terrorists. The Klan may be a hate group, but that denotes its members as “haters” or “racists” rather than subject to the broad authority employed by the government to track and control “terrorists.” 4
One can share the SPLC’s strong condemnation of intimidation and racial hatred and violence in society and, simultaneously, object when violence is done to the Constitution. The McCarthy-era philosophy of guilt by association, which the Supreme Court has since condemned as “alien to the traditions of a free society and the First Amendment itself,” 5 has made a strong comeback in recent years under the guise of cutting off funding for terrorism. 6
By way of illustration of how protest can be seen as terrorism when it becomes unpopular, we note a recent spate of state bills that target animal rights and environmental activists, such as the “Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act” introduced in Texas in February 2003. The bill, promoted by the pressure groups U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance and American Legislative Exchange Council, would increase penalties for organizations participating in activities “with an intent to influence a governmental entity or the public to take a specific action”, defining as animal rights or ecological terrorist organizations “[t]wo or more persons organized for the purpose of supporting any politically motivated activity intended to obstruct or deter any person from participating in an activity involving animals or natural resources.” The bill would also create Internet sites similar to those which register child molesters by name, address, and photo identification.
This proposal — matched by similar bills in New York and elsewhere —could be construed as outlawing verbal criticism of abusive practices against animals or the environment. This could arguably restrict investigative journalists similar to the ones who write your reports. Wherever such proposals do take hold and harden into law, people must endure lengthy court battles to make law enforcement offices to respect their Constitutional rights to freedom of speech, to undertake peaceful collective action, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
To summarize: We do not depict anyone who promotes violence as inconsequential, but taking their acts seriously does not leave only the option of reflexive calls for their punishment under the constitutionally-suspect anti-terrorism provisions that expand in front of our eyes in a drama reminiscent of the 1958 film The Blob. 7 Unfortunately, SPLC gives backhanded support to the further erosion of our civil liberties. SPLC would do well to recall that one of the justifications for guaranteeing political freedoms is that a free people are less likely to be driven to extreme violence.
III. What animal rights is - and is not
SPLC insists that proposals to unearth the roots of violence in a teen who commits an extreme form of vandalism bring to mind anti-abortionists “who criticize us for opposing anti-abortion violence without offering a dissertation on the fetuses that are killed during abortions.” But the general public lacks knowledge about animal rights theory whereas most people are aware of the issues surrounding abortion, and consequently society does not use the acts of a James Kopp to denounce Christians in general. Moreover, although asking what makes a 16-year-old male set a fire is more difficult than simply urging punishment, it is society’s business to ask such questions. 8Let us be clear here: This request does not mean we condone arson. To the extent that anyone decides to “pick up the gun” to further their mission, we, as animal rights advocates, reject their decision. To the extent that the “movement” considers advocates for threats and violence “elder statesmen” we are here to remind such people that animal rights is more aligned with feminist egalitarianism than with the hierarchies of elder statesmen.
Although we do not insist that you publish a dissertation on our theory, we do ask for fair reporting. For example, using a list of acts called “Eco-violence: The Record”, your writers report that a 1984 “raid at the University of Pennsylvania Head Injury Lab caused $60,000 in damage” but omit the highly relevant fact that the action resulted in the uncovering of films of appalling treatment of non-human primates — evidence of such egregious violations of the law that the lab was shut down. The activists had no other available way to bring this important documentation into the public view. Can fair and serious reporting of a story elide these points?
You object that we “attack” SPLC for using quotes in support of violent tactics from two representatives of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PeTA) which had been publicized by the food industry pressure group Center for Consumer Freedom. 9 While we too see PeTA’s quoted statements as examples of irresponsible speech, we pointed out that SPLC’s writers chose a quote published numerous times by the Center for Consumer Freedom because your writers unfortunately focused on the comments in the same way the Center for Consumer Freedom focuses on them, without observing that many of us cringe when we hear such statements. In other words, your report would tend to confirm a reasonable reader’s impression that bullying conduct is what animal rights is about. The Center for Consumer Freedom is both highly vocal and prone to selective reporting on the issue of animal advocacy, which might explain why the McLean, Virginia conference seems to speak for a wider population than it actually represents, and might also explain your impression that “[f]rustration with the slow pace of nonviolent change appears to be epidemic in the movement.”
You have asked why we believe that the McLean, Virginia Animal Rights Conference is not truly an animal-rights event at all. You decide that we “don’t like the organizations — PETA, ALF, ELF, and SHAC — who were there.” It is not a matter of liking or not liking the organizations. 10 Many events and exchanges comprise the animal advocacy community, through universities, in small hotels, and in published and electronic fora such as this one. SPLC chose one forum to highlight: a fundraiser for an organization called the “Farm Animal Reform Movement” (FARM). This is not surprising, for FARM’s core mission seems to be to attract publicity. The D.C. event is a big-top spectacle whose list of speakers includes such people as a meat processing magazine writer, a zoo director, a former beauty contest winner, and a horse-breeding specialist. It draws celebrity-chasers, award-seekers, and book-hawkers, and serves as a venue where a small group of people compete for high profiles. To paraphrase Quentin Crisp: a glittering function where everyone is speaking and no one is listening.
It is also an event which enables commentators to lump peaceful activists together with people who use threats. Yet only some 1000 people, mostly the same people time after time, attend that convention; whereas the number of new ethical vegetarians — those of us who accept the core premise of the animal rights movement — is, by one estimate, as high as 690,000 a year in the United States alone. 11 “The majority are ordinary people with families to care for and bills to pay,” observes Shell Sullivan, founder of an animal rights project called The Animal Spirit. “I talk to people who will listen and I protest against what I believe to be wrong. I do not resort to intimidation, for might-means-right goes against everything the animal rights movement stands for. I do not believe the fall of the fur industry will occur because fur wearers are attacked with paint, but because enough people have come to the decision to stop supporting the fur industry.”
In the current political climate, it is tempting to portray people who have taken on challenging causes as terrorists. Using this strategy to discredit a vegetarian movement is to paint with far too wide a brush. What most serious animal rights activists embrace as “direct action” is vegetarianism. Far from a “bizarre” definition, we consider this commitment a sensible, positive notion that, properly understood, would lead to precisely the sort of society that cultivates respect for all humans. Yet, as you correctly observe, “it’s a fact that more and more Americans have heard of animal rights only through violent acts of activists.” That is why we are here to let you and your readers know that animal rights is a force for peaceful and positive social change.
Again, thank you for talking the time to consider our concerns.
Priscilla Feral, President
Lee Hall, Legal Director
- Open letter from Priscilla Feral to Morris Dees, dated 6 May 2003 (on file with Friends of Animals). Emphasis added.
- About the lawsuit brought by McDonald’s against London Greenpeace activists Dave Morris and Helen Steel, we noted that “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.” SPLC Editor Mark Potok’s letter objects to the punctuation, believing that it appears to quote SPLC directly. “Foreign influence” appears in inverted commas simply because it is questionable to say that the progress of an ideology can be so neatly divided into nationalities. We have, with respect for Editor Potok’s concerns, removed the punctuation.
- See generally David Cole, “National Security State”- The Nation (December 17, 2001)
- See Michael J. Whidden, “Note: Unequal Justice: Arabs in America and United States Antiterrorism Legislation” 69 Fordham Law Review 2825, 2869-70 (2001).
- National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) v. Claiborne Hardware Co., 458 U.S. 886, 932 (1982) (citations omitted).
- See generally David Cole, “Hanging with the Wrong Crowd: Of Gangs, Terrorists, and the Right of Association” - 1999 Supreme Court Review 203 (1999).
- In the film, a mysterious mass grows in proportion to the number of people it devours. A pair of youths try to warn their town that the Blob has invaded, only to meet resistance by local law enforcement officials. The town’s failure to heed the warning makes matters worse, for the longer their disbelief persists, the more people are devoured and the bigger and more destructive the Blob grows.
- We are well aware that the Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front have no membership qualifications except carrying out an action in furtherance of the mission of either group. A lack of acknowledgment from the groups’ spokespeople is, however, significant. As your letter notes, certain actions “have been claimed by ALF or ELF.” It is, therefore, significant when an act is expressly not claimed by the spokespeople. As a matter of plain logic, ideological actions will usually not be disowned if they are considered by the spokespeople as furthering the mission of the group.
- As the quote derives from a large conference, nothing in our response was intended to indicate that the Consumer Freedom folks were the only ones who heard it or recorded it. The Fall 2002 Intelligence Report provides, as far as we know, SPLC’s first use of the PeTA quote. Richard Berman and the Center for Consumer Freedom have published the quote, or parts of it, in numerous editorials, letters, and releases, including editorials printed by USA Today, first appearing in November 2001 (authored by Berman who was then “executive director of The Guest Choice Network, a coalition of restaurant and tavern operators”); on their own Internet site (April 2002); in the Daily Oklahoman (19 May 2002, David Martosko, research director for the Center for Consumer Freedom); through the Americans for Medical Progress site on (July 2002; Berman cited as the source); and the Grand Forks Herald (1 Jul. 2002; authored by Richard Berman). The quotes have continued to appear on a regular basis in editorials by David Martosko, (The Weekly Standard, 14 Oct. 2002; Virginia’s Richmond Times Dispatch, 25 Oct. 2002; the Providence Journal of Rhode Island, 18 Nov. 2002; The Washington Times, 24 Nov. 2002; The Capital of Annapolis, Maryland, 5 Dec. 2002) and Richard Berman (USA Today, 16 Apr. 2003).
- One might wonder how legal services attorneys would feel if Morris Dees suddenly decided to take a page out of PeTA’s book and pay some SPLC employees and a few Playboy models to remove most of their clothing and distribute materials, along with pin-up calendars, to the troops leaving Maxwell Air Force Base, while other SPLC representatives urge audiences to threaten to throw bricks at opponents. Whether or not other civil rights groups “like” you, they would have reason to question descriptions of your group as belonging to a movement for egalitarianism and tolerance.
- See Tatiana Gelfand, “Why Is The Number of Vegetarians Increasing So Rapidly?”- The Animal Spirit (2003). Tatiana Gelfand could not immediately be reached to identify the cited poll; however, Gelfand’s figures do not seem out of line with those of a recent Gallup Poll, which estimates the total number of vegetarians in the United States at 17.1 million (2001) and rising. Gallup does not list reasons for adhering to the diet.