August 15th, 2006 by Will Potter
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A few people have requested that I post the presentations I made at the national animal rights conference last weekend. Below you'll find the text I prepared for the plenary session.
'The SHAC 7, the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, and the
Future of the Green Scare'
Well the last time I spoke about the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act was before the House Judiciary Committee. I'm hoping you all will be a slightly more sympathetic audience.
You've heard about the SHAC7, and now I want to talk a bit about what's next.
In this post-9/11 climate, you're 'either with us or against us,' as the president has said. The Patriot Act, NSA spying, and no-fly lists have shown just what's at risk if you're placed in the 'against us' camp. But the legislation used to go after the SHAC7, and that some members of Congress are now trying to expand, started long before that.
In 1992 Congress passed the Animal Enterprise Protection Act. It got hardly any attention except from the industry groups that pushed it, like the National Association for Biomedical Research.
It created the crime of 'animal enterprise terrorism' for anyone who travels in 'interstate or foreign commerce' and 'intentionally damages or causes the loss of any property' of an animal enterprise, including the loss of profits, or conspires to do so.
It also spelled out hefty sentencing guidelines.
When the law passed, some green and civil rights groups got nervous. They saw the vague language, the use of the T-word, and the industry groups behind this, and started sounding alarms. Sweeping terrorism legislation like this could open the floodgates and put all activists at risk.
But the floodgates didn't open. That law sat on the shelf for years, primarily because FBI agents have looked like keystone cops going after the ALF and ELF. Even with the recent roundups of environmental activists, that's just a drop in the bucket. Underground activists have claimed credit for more than 1,200 criminal incidents since 1990, according to the F.B.I., and there are 150 pending 'eco-terror' investigations.
Industry groups wanted results, so in the early 90s they started pushing for stiffer penalties and even broader language in the law. They wanted the death penalty for serious property crimes. They wanted the law to include 'not-so-savage' acts like 'pies in the face.' And in an eerie forecast of the War on Terrorism rhetoric, they said anyone in their way was 'against us.'
A member of the board of directors of the National Animal Interest Alliance said:
'Congressmen and women who are sympathetic to the cause of animal rights must be reminded that they are aiding and abetting terrorism when they work to dilute the language of criminal statutes written to protect scientists, businessmen and women, entertainers and farmers''
That was pre-9/11, folks.
The feds tossed the groups a bone in 1998, though, with the first use of the law. The government charged Peter Young and Justin Samuel with animal enterprise terrorism for releasing thousands of mink from Wisconsin fur farms. Samuel confessed and implicated Young, who was on the run for seven years, and then caught in 2005 and sentenced to two years in prison.
Now, I don't consider releasing mink from fur farms to be terrorism, and I don't think many of the victims of 9/11 would, either. But at least that's what the law was meant to do: go after underground activists. Or so we're told.
Fast forward to the only other convictions under the law: a group of activists who were never charged with breaking into a fur farm, spray-painting slogans, or breaking windows. The SHAC 7 simply made a point of vocally supporting those who did.
SHAC never tried to be in the 'with us' camp. They vigorously defended direct action, even as many national groups condemned underground activists as extremists, and even terrorists, to win cheap political points.
So by all accounts, the law has gone above and beyond corporate expectations. It's been used to after the ALF, and to go after legal activism.
But industry groups still want more.
Their appetites have been whetted. David Martosko of the Center for Consumer Freedom said after the SHAC conviction: 'This is just the starting gun.' They want new state legislation. And they want new federal legislation, the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act.
They say the feds need more tools to go after so-called tertiary targeting, targeting corporations that do business with animal enterprises. Mind you, that's what SHAC was all about. But facts didn't matter too much in the Red Scare, and they don't matter that much this time around, either.
When I went before Congress a few months ago, the three other witnesses, who all supported the bill, did their best to have things both ways. They said animal extremists could, at any moment, take a human life. They said illegal actions are increasing, the threat is growing, the communists, I mean, terrorists, are lurking right around the corner. But at the same time they touted their victory in the SHAC case, as putting terrorists behind bars.
Members of Congress, Republican and Democrat alike, have bought into it.
This legislation criminalizes any activity against an animal enterprise, or any company connected to an animal enterprise, that causes 'economic damage.' That includes the replacement costs of lost or damaged property or records, the costs of repeating an interrupted or invalidated experiment, and 'the loss of profits.'
That clause, 'loss of profits,' would sweep in not only property crimes, but legal activity like whistleblowing and undercover investigations. We've already seen the terrorist rhetoric and absurd sentences being used against animal activists, like in the Wegman's case. The latest version of the law also specifically spells out the inclusion of non-violent civil disobedience, with mandatory sentences. In other words, the tactics of MLK and Gandhi are now terrorism.
But disrupting business and hurting profits isn't terrorism. It's effective activism. Businesses exist to make money, and if activists want to change a business practice, they must make that practice unprofitable. That principle guided the United Farm Workers, the lunch-counter civil disobedience of civil rights activists, and the divestment campaigns of anti-apartheid groups.
And it's even more central to the animal rights movement. That's why everyone here needs to be damn scared. The animal rights movement, perhaps more than any other social movement, is about directly threatening corporate profits. You do it every day. Every time you help someone go vegan, everytime you turn people away from products tested on animals. Those boycotts are permanent, and animal industries know it.
The latest draft of the act pays lip service to some of these concerns, specifically saying that, 'Nothing in this section shall be construed to prohibit any expressive conduct (including peaceful picketing or other peaceful demonstration) protected from legal prohibition by the First Amendment to the Constitution.' Well hot damn. I would like to personally take this opportunity to thank lawmakers for this gracious gesture of stating that there's still a First Amendment.
That doesn't fix anything. You're all still at risk. This legislation will impact all of you, even if you never enter a courtroom. It will add to the chilling effect that already exists because of 'eco-terrorism' rhetoric by corporations, lawmakers and law enforcement. These industry groups are getting more and more gutsy. They're taking out full-page anonymous ads in both The New York Times and The Washington Post, labeling animal rights activists 'terrorists.' They're launching media campaigns labeling the children's movie Hoot, 'soft-core eco-terrorism for kids.'
Meanwhile the Department of Homeland Security does not list right-wing terrorists on a list of national security threats, even though those groups have admittedly murdered people. The animal rights movement has not.
This legislation will add to this fear and distrust, and will force activists to decide if speaking up for animals is worth the risk of being labeled a 'terrorist,' either in the media or the courtroom. That's not a choice anyone should have to make.
For years this movement has responded to this Green Scare in one of two ways. Activists either act like home raids and FBI harassment are a badge of honor: scene points. Or activists say they don't have time to selfishly worry about these issues, because it takes time and effort away from the animals.
But here's the thing: To use a non-animal rights analogy, you all are the canaries in the mines. Corporations, lawmakers, and other activists across the political spectrum are watching to see if you can survive in this cave.
It's up to you all to step up. Nobody will be coming to your rescue, because they don't want to get pulled into the witch hunt. The burden is on you to reach out to other social movements, and to the public, to say that the fears of terrorism since the tragedy of September 11th should not be exploited for political points. It's up to you to reach out to them, and say that tragedy shouldn't be exploited to protect profits.