Eleven years ago, when I was arrested along with six other animal activists on domestic terrorism charges, I was already tired of looking for lawyers. The campaign I was working on, Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC), had already garnered its fair share of lawsuits and arrests. The situation had gotten to the point that I was spending essentially all of my time dealing with legal problems, rather than campaigning directly to close the product testing lab Huntingdon Life Sciences--the reason for SHAC’s existence.
Over several years, I had called hundreds of attorneys in several different states seeking representation for dozens of lawsuits that SHAC faced--First Amendment attorneys, civil liberties organizations, lawyers who had litigated mass arrests at some of the big protest gatherings of the late 1990s and early 2000s. The usual suspects. The hot shots. The lawyers who were supposed to tell me that, while they may not agree with what SHAC was saying, they would defend to the death our right to say it.
Instead, most of them told me they couldn’t help. Partly, this was a financial issue. SHAC was a grassroots campaign run by unpaid volunteers, and we didn’t have the funds to defend against these cases. The very nature of SLAPP suits is that, while the plaintiff’s claims may be frivolous, he has deeper pockets and can bury the defendant in litigation costs, forcing her into settlement.
What was most notable to me, however, was where these attorneys referred me when they politely declined to represent us. Almost invariably, they sent me to the Animal Legal Defense Fund.
The ALDF is a wonderful organization that does great legal work to help animals. However, especially back then, ALDF was focused on using the law directly on behalf of animals--namely, enacting and enforcing animal protection laws; it did not do civil liberties work. (In recent years, ALDF has undertaken some civil liberties work, challenging so-called “ag-gag” laws.) When lawyers who had prominently represented all sorts of protesters and controversial speakers referred me to the “animal legal” organization, it told me that they thought of SHAC’s issues as animal issues rather than free speech issues.
The surest sign came when, after my codefendants and I were arrested on “animal enterprise terrorism” charges for campaigning to close Huntingdon, I responded to an announcement from a civil liberties organization seeking activists who felt like they were being harassed by the government. Calling the organization and reporting SHAC’s woes, I was told “this is for anti-globalization demonstrators, DNC, RNC protesters, etc.--it’s not for animal rights activists.”
I found myself spending a lot of time explaining to lawyers I approached that SHAC’s issues were the same as those of any other activists who got in trouble; we needed civil liberties lawyers, not animal lawyers. I de-emphasized the issue I had dedicated my life to -- ending violence against animals -- the cause for which I had gotten in trouble, in order to play up the importance of defending “freedom for the thought we hate.”
Eleven years on, the tide has turned. The repression of animal rights activism is increasingly taken seriously and recognized as a legitimate civil liberties issue by the broader Left. This is due in large part to brave organizations like CCR and the National Lawyers Guild, who stepped up to defend unpopular activists when we were under attack (both CCR and the NLG acted as amicus parties in my case), and to journalists like Will Potter who continued writing and speaking about this issue even when, as he told me yesterday, it felt like he was yelling into a black hole.
The surest sign of this shift came this week, in the form of an outstanding article by Glenn Greenwald, on The Intercept, about the arrest of two animal rights activists last Friday under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA), for allegedly freeing thousands of animals from fur farms and vandalizing property. Those who follow CCR’s work may remember that the same thing happened last summer when, like this year, on the eve of the annual national animal rights conference, two activists were arrested on AETA charges for allegedly freeing thousands of animals from fur farms--and, in true terrorist fashion, for spray-painting “Liberation Is Love.” CCR filed a motion to dismiss that case, challenging the constitutionality of the AETA.
Now, this summer, in a 180-degree turn from a decade ago, the journalist who broke what was probably the biggest story of the past five years is writing about animal rights activists. In his article, Greenwald situates the repression of the animal rights movement within a broader crackdown by powerful interests on speech, including whistleblowing, and activism that threatens to expose their unsavory practices. But he does more than that.
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Greenwald writes in particular about what the animal rights movement is trying to expose. He doesn’t flinch when folks he interviews say that the animal rights movement is challenging the idea -- and a way of life based on that idea -- that humans can do anything we want, for any reason, to animals and to the planet. In fact, he echoes this sentiment, writing:
“the animal rights movement strikes at the heart of what is most cherished by American elites: the pillars of unrestrained capitalistic entitlement. That so much industrial profit depends upon extreme, constant torture, violence and slaughter of animals is something as regarded as, in essence a sacred right.”
He notes that, when powerful corporate interests usher laws like the AETA through Congress, they can do so only because so much of the massive, global violence against animals remains hidden. And then he reveals that violence, including in his article three undercover videos, filmed inside of fur farms and animal agricultural facilities.
Eleven years after I was turned away by some of the biggest names in activist defense, increased acceptance by the broader social justice community of animal rights activists has also meant increased open-mindedness about the injustices happening to animals.
There are so many examples. Here are just two I’ve been involved in:
About three years ago, lawyers, legal workers, and law students who had done work defending animal rights activists formed the Animal Rights Activism Committee of the National Lawyers Guild (ARAC). I am a member. While ARAC still works to defend activists, we have focused much of our efforts on advocating directly for animals within the NLG, urging this group of social justice attorneys to consider whether and how animals fit within a broader anti-oppression and nonviolence framework. And we have been rather successful; the Guild has increasingly kept animals off the table, serving food free of animal products at many of its major events.
And, last week, pattrice jones [lowercase intentional] of the LGBTQ-run VINE Animal Sanctuary visited CCR for the second time, to lead a discussion about intersectionality and animals--i.e. how she came, after decades of social justice work, to include ending violence against animals within her overall anti-oppression vision.
These are just two of so many examples. But they all amount to this: I no longer cloak my animal activism in the First Amendment. I care deeply about free speech, but I no longer feel the need to hide my belief that ending violence against animals is a matter of justice every bit as legitimate as human rights struggles.
This view is not always received without skepticism. And the need to constantly dig deeper and do better goes both ways--there is certainly room for improvement on social justice issues within the animal rights movement. But, as the success of ARAC’s efforts, Greenwald’s article, and the willingness of my fellow CCRers to engage with and think critically about animal issues show, a decade of repression has led not, as intended, to the squelching of the animal rights movement, but to new relationships that have strengthened both defenses against that repression and the overall goal of ending violence against animals.