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TRIAL BY FIRE: The SHAC 7 and the Future of Democracy

by J-88 Thursday, Aug. 19, 2004 at 5:51 PM

It remains to be seen if activists involved in other causes will truly understand the indictment of the SHAC 7 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.

TRIAL BY FIRE: The SHAC 7 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 U.K. and U.S. 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 /share to less than /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 “SHAC 7” 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 0,000 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) as 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 SHAC 7 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 SHAC 7, 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 the 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 SHAC 7. In their media statement, HLS intoned: “The Company is 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, U.S. 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 U.S. 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. U.S. 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 basis, 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 human 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, 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 percent 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.

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