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News :: Gender : Human Rights : Organizing
Insurgent Ideas
13 May 2004
Federal, state, and private security forces converged to police not actions but ideas at the Student Animal Rights Organization (SARO) conference on animal liberation, which included the first ever academic symposium on the Animal Liberation Front (ALF).
Federal agents monitored activities from the parking lot while local undercover officers loitered among the activists inside the campus buildings. Vivisection laboratories readied themselves against incursions as hardcore bands rehearsed for a benefit concert. One activist was arrested shortly after delivering a stirring speech. The others — possible “domestic terrorists” one and all — were photographed entering and leaving the event.

The occasion for these dramatic happenings was not a building takeover, banner drop, Black Bloc maneuver, or act of eco-sabotage. Federal, state, and private security forces converged to police not actions but ideas at the Student Animal Rights Organization (SARO) conference on animal liberation, which included the first ever academic symposium on the Animal Liberation Front (ALF).

Dangerous Minds? On a chilly April weekend, students, professors, and activists converged at Syracuse University to discuss philosophies and strategies of animal liberation. The first full day of the conference was packed full of panels on a panoply of topics both philosophical and pragmatic. The second day brought together several of the contributors to a forthcoming anthology on the ALF to discuss issues such as unspoken cooperation between above-ground and underground organizations, feminist justifications for forceful direct action on behalf of animals, and the forensics of effective animal advocacy.

Bookended by a film of ducks being force-fed on a factory farm and an energetic punk rock fundraiser, this was not your grandfather’s academic conference. But were the ideas presented really so dangerous to the status quo? Were the agents of the state justified in thinking that these are the people they ought to keep any eye on?

If you understand the police to be protectors of privilege and property rather than defenders of liberty and life, then the answer to that question might be “yes.” Woven into the fabric of the conference, appearing again and again in different colors and patterns, were two ideas that, if widely embraced, would undermine and overwhelm the existing world order: (1) the idea that direct action for animals is now as necessary and justified as the Underground Railroad once was; and (2) the idea that links between the struggles for earth, animal, and human liberation also are both justified and necessary.

Together, these two ideas both destabilize the dominant worldview and offer the possibility of building an ethical movement of sufficient mass to counter the power of the amoral might-makes-right mentality that now dominates both relations among people and relations between people and animals. That being the case, a few highlights from the conference are in order for those who were unable to attend...

Race, Sex, Class... and Species? Why do people balk at comparisons between human and animal suffering? If we can answer that question, we can begin to do what needs to be done to overcome obstacles to the union of the struggles for social justice and animal liberation. While some of the reasons people don’t want to connect the dots are very visible, with the most conspicuous being that they would have to give up their own assumptions of privilege over animals, other objections are more psychologically subtle.

In her keynote address concerning PETA’s controversial “Holocaust on Your Plate” campaign, United Poultry Concerns president Karen Davis noted that traumatized peoples have historically rejected any and all comparisons to the suffering of other peoples, such as when Bosnian survivors of Serbian “ethnic cleansing” campaigns vehemently rejected comparisons to the Hutu genocide against the Tutsi people in Rwanda. Drawing upon the writing of Susan Sontag, Davis explained that nobody wants their personal anguish reduced to just one example of a commonplace category of suffering. Nonetheless, Davis argued, the comparisons must be made if we want to understand and undo the common causes of atrocities.

Going all the way back to the days before men asserted their ownership of land, animals, and women, filmmaker and animal liberation activist Josh Harper identified “the commodification of life” as the taproot of the tangled vines of exploitation that now ensnare people, animals, and ecosystems. SARO member Erin Ryan Fitzgerald also spoke of factors that underlie the oppression of both people and animals, numbering the profit motive, state authority, and “distortion of religion” among them.

Speaking on the subject of radical tactics, Pattrice Jones [author’s note: that’s me] urged activists to take such connections into account when planning campaigns. We must find ways to free or relieve the immediate suffering of animals right now while at the same time building a movement with the capacity to succeed in the long-term struggle for change. Thinking about the links between issues can help organizations to find allies and to plan actions that help the animal liberation movement to grow beyond its existing base of supporters.

Adventures in Antiviolence Such strategic planning is necessary because there are so many different ways that people can and have taken action to contest violence against and violations of themselves and other animals. Activists must choose the tactics that are most likely to achieve their specific aims.

“Open rescue” has become an increasingly popular tactic, due to its success in liberating individual animals while at the same time publicizing the plight of their peers. Open rescue was pioneered by the intrepid Patty Mark and her comrades in Australia as an overt alternative to covert raids on vivisection labs and factory farms. Activists engaged in open rescue do not mask themselves or their intentions. They videotape every phase of the process of removing animals who are in dire need of food, water, or veterinary care. They replace any locks that they break and sometimes go so far as to call the police to notify them that they have taken the necessary step of taking starving or sick animals to a place where they will receive care. If they end up in court, they use what lawyers here in the USA call the “necessity defense,” arguing that any crime they committed (such as trespass) was justified by the need to prevent a greater evil and using the trial as an opportunity to get videotaped evidence of extreme yet routine cruelty to animals into the public record.

The tactic of the open rescue was introduced to the United States when Patty Mark spoke at a United Poultry Concerns (UPC) conference in the late 1990s. At that time, UPC President Karen Davis now says, the potential power of videotaped images of compassionate people openly rescuing wretchedly miserable animals was immediately evident to all who witnessed Mark’s presentation. Since then, the open rescue tactic has been used by a number of US organizations, with the most notable recent example being the campaign against pate foie gras, which is produced by force feeding confined ducks until they develop the fatty liver disease that is the defining feature of this perverse ‘delicacy.’

Introducing the very powerful videotape “Delicacy of Despair” (which is available via and should be shown in every community), a female activist involved in that campaign spoke with barely contained grief about the experience of filming the wretched conditions in which the ducks used and abused by the pate foie gras industry endure lives of unrelenting suffering. These waterfowl are confined in metal crates without access to water and in constant fear of the twice-daily force-feedings during which tubes are violently shoved down their throats as the excess food that will destroy their livers is pumped inside their defenseless bodies.

Activists who undertake open or covert, legal or illegal investigations or rescues often must struggle with the emotional consequences of witnessing extreme suffering and may be haunted by the animals they were unable to save. But, for those animals who are saved, open rescue literally means everything. Conference participants were also able to witness that aspect of open rescue, by means of a very different videotape — an Animal Planet episode that featured the rehabilitation and release to a sanctuary of former foie gras factory inmates.

Time and again videotaped evidence collected by covert methods has been the decisive factor in campaigns against cruelty to animals. Giving the history of the SHAC (Stop Huntington Animal Cruelty) campaign, which has eaten deeply into the profits of one of the worst vivisection operations in the world and which seems likely to succeed in forcing the company out of business, Kevin Jonas cited three key instances in which women went undercover with hidden cameras and succeeded in bringing out footage of extreme neglect and mistreatment. Those films have been used to motivate activists, sway public opinion, and embarrass the company’s customers into cutting their ties with Huntington.

The SHAC campaign, which has been accompanied by supportive actions by underground activists, is an example of the power of unspoken cooperation between activists who pursue the same ends by different means. Sharing important stories from the history of animal advocacy, Jonas described several successful UK campaigns wherein legal demonstrations occurred during the daytime and then “the ALF took the night shift” (without any communication between the two groups of activists), using direct action to back up the demands of the demonstrators. In each instance, the combined pressure of embarrassing demonstrations during the day and property damage at night led those who had previously profited from their mistreatment of animals to conclude that continuing to do so would no longer be profitable. In each instance, the animal abusers went out of business.

Such cooperation, while undoubtedly effective, is rare. Too often, groups make decisions on the basis of organizational self-interest rather than the best interests of the movement. Misunderstanding and mistrust also inhibit relations among activists who favor different tactical approaches to achieving shared aims.

The question of violence often arises in debates concerning the Animal Liberation Front, even though the ALF is an explicitly nonviolent underground network. Problems arise from differing definitions of violence. Most people who support the ALF do not consider property destruction to be violence while many people who oppose the ALF see acts such as breaking windows or disabling machinery to be violent, even though they entail no risk of injury to people, plants or animals. Arson is a particularly volatile subject, with some activists arguing that fire can be safely deployed as an agent of nonviolent property damage and others arguing that there is always too great a risk of injury to firefighters and human or non-human bystanders.

Despite the ALF’s nonviolent stance, some conference participants did come out in favor of what they called “violent” or “militant” activism on behalf of animals. Some likened the struggle for animal liberation to the French Resistance and other times when people have needed to literally fight for their own freedom or the freedom of others. If we condone the French Resistance to the Nazi occupation and we say that we believe that animals are as worthy of defense as people, they argued, then we are hypocritical if we do not support the same kinds of resistance against the vivisectors.

The question that begins to arise whenever such comparisons are made is, simply, “what is violence?” People tend to use the word loosely, without regard for the fact that its root — violation — tells you that it is always wrong. Often, it turns out that the “violent” tactics activists are advocating might be considered by many to be justifiable use of force, and thus not “violent” at all.

The real question is the location of the dividing line between violence and justifiable use of force. The exact same act — pushing a child to the ground — is justifiable force when one is pushing the child out of the way of a moving vehicle but becomes violence if it is done in anger or as punishment. Thus, whether or not a forceful act is violent (and hence unjustified) or justified (and hence not violent) depends on a host of contextual factors, none of which tend to be visible when people simply pronounce themselves for or against “violence.”

Feminist Interventions Feminist analyses of violence and nonviolence tend to be more subtle and sensitive to context than the theories made famous by esteemed men. In her presentation on feminist perspectives and the ALF, Pattrice Jones [author’s disclosure: again, that’s me] argued that anarcha~feminism, ecofeminism, radical feminism, and the feminist ethos of care all offer insights that support direct action for animals and can help to make such activism more effective. She issued two feminist challenges to ALF calls: (1) be truly true to the ALF principle of nonviolence; and (2) listen to the animals.

Concerning nonviolence, Jones warned that the nature of the ALF makes it attractive to disaffected and potentially violent young men and that this inherent problem is exacerbated when men claiming to be spokesmen for the ALF condone the violent acts of non-ALF activists or make thinly veiled threats rooted more in their own romantic ideas about rebellion than the day-to-day activities of the underground ALF cells they purport to represent. Jones went on record that “as a feminist and an animal liberationist, I will no longer believe any man who claims to be the spokesperson for the ALF, since the most that any one person can be is the conduit for the communications of a small subset of ALF cells.” She also urged underground cells to be very careful in choosing the people through whom they communicate, so that their actions are not misrepresented or given a different political ‘spin’ than they intended.

Concerning listening to the animals, Jones warned that “we can be so busy speaking up for the animals that we can forget to listen to them.” She shared stories of animals seeking their own liberation, aiding the liberation of other animals, and showing compassion across species. We must attend carefully to what the animals are doing for themselves and each other, she asserted, so that we can be better allies to them.

In the course of his presentations on topics ranging from radical tactics to the psychological dynamics of oppression, former Black Panther Party member and political prisoner Ashanti Alston proved to be a role model worthy of emulation by people in any liberation movement and a particularly apt exemplar for men grappling with the implications of feminism. Alston spent much of his time in prison reading widely and applying the insights of many different scholars and activists to the problems on which his own activism had been focused. In some instances, this forced him to rethink his assumptions and ways of interacting with others. We all must open ourselves to information and ideas from many different sources in order to avoid self-satisfied stasis. If we want to create change, we have to be willing to change.

Speaking of the ways that poverty, racism, and other forms of oppression warp and damage people, Alston asserted that we all must pay some attention to healing ourselves, if only so that we can become better activists. He revealed that battling his own personal sexism has been the most challenging task for him and that he considers that an important ongoing struggle to which he is very committed. Earlier that day, video activist Josh Harper had revealed that he too had changed some of his ways of thinking and acting in response to reading and listening to the words of women. Feminists in the audience sent up a collective prayer that men in the animal movement, the liberationist wing of which has been particularly prone to macho posturing, would follow the lead of Harper and Alston in challenging their own sexism.

Prisoners of Love Ashanti Alston also spoke about his experiences in prison. He explained that, for prisoners, any little breath of nature is a lifeline. The outdoor prison yard was fenced with razor wire, so that any effort at escape would result in horrible injury. One day, a rabbit somehow got past the fence into the yard but became tangled in the razor-sharp wire when trying to leave. The prisoners watched, helpless, as the rabbit struggled to be free of the man-made fence, eventually bleeding to death. In the vivid image of the caged men watching the wild animal torn to pieces by the struggle to be free, audience members glimpsed the steely cruelty of a social system that imprisons people and animals alike.

Like Alston, former Animal Liberation Front member Andy Stepanian was imprisoned for the fundamental crime of loving life more than money. In his talk on human and non-human prisons, Stepanian explained that mink, who naturally travel many miles per day, pace around and around in their cages, compelled to run those miles even when constrained by bars. Serving time for alleged crimes associated with the liberation of animals, Stepanian noticed something similar among his fellow prisoners. Just like the mink, the human being has built-in drives that, if frustrated by unnatural confinement, will be expressed in stereotyped behavior.

Stepanian’s insights reminded audience members that people really are animals. When we really understand this, we understand that the struggles for women’s liberation or liberation from racism or economic exploitation are, self-evidently, struggles for animal liberation and that, vice versa, the struggle for animal liberation is a struggle to free the people too. The sooner we act upon that fundamental truth, the sooner we will be able to build a movement large, diverse, and cohesive enough to achieve total animal liberation.

Note: This article reflects selected aspects of one person’s experience of the conference and should not be taken as a complete account of that event. The author apologizes to all of the fine speakers not mentioned in this survey of some of the issues mentioned in the course of the weekend. All presentations were videotaped. For a full accounting of the conference agenda and information about the future availability of videotapes, visit SARO online at

Pattrice Jones’ chapter “Mothers with Monkeywrenches: Feminist Imperatives and the Animal Liberation Front” appears in the new book Terrorists or Freedom Fighters: Critical Reflections on the Liberation of Animals edited by Steve Best and Tony Nocella and published by Lantern Press. She lives in rural Maryland, where she and her partner operate the Eastern Shore Sanctuary & Education Center
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