An Interview with Jeff Watkins
from No Compromise Issue 7
 

NC: By now I'm sure that virtually everyone reading this has heard about the circumstances surrounding your current imprisonment, but everyone might not know the idea behind the three demands that you made upon your incarceration. What were these three demands and what motivated you to make them?

Jeff: The three demands, the hunger strike, and the motivation behind the whole thing, resulted from my need to participate in the struggle for animal liberation. Basically, I could stand being a prisoner of the United States government; that was bearable. However, ceasing in my activities for fur-bearing animals was not. I simply couldn't hack doing nothing, incarcerated or not. So a few days prior to my captivity in a correctional facility, I was looking for the best possible means of combating the fur industry and motivating free activists nationwide. I remembered how inspired I became when I first learned of Barry Horne's ultimatum-oriented hunger strike in England. So, after some soul-searching, I got the blessings from some loved ones, and the choice was made. I spoke to a few activists in different cities and we concocted the three demands behind a month long hunger strike. They were:

1. a nationwide and federal ban on the steel-jaw leghold trap;
2. an immediate rectification to the developing trade chaos between the U.S. and England over domestic insistence on trapped fur;
3. and a definitive end to the continuous re-introduction of New York Assemblyman Michael Bragman's "Beaver Butchery Bill."

NC: Do you feel that making those demands has proven to be a successful and fruitful move for the animal liberation movement?

Jeff: I guess that is a question for the entire movement. I've received both praise and criticism concerning the whole thing. On a personal level, yes, I feel that the actions taken have been beneficial for the liberation of animals. But I don't feel responsible for any success, because any victory won or any headway gained belongs to us all. It's a triumph that every dedicated and persistent activist can take credit for.

NC: You were on a hunger strike for about the first 30 days of your sentence. What was that like?

Jeff: Well, hunger-striking isn't a joke. It's tough on the body, so one relies on the strength existing within. It was the highest mountain I've ever climbed. It's really tough to describe, but the thing I remember the most is the sheer physical weakness. Actually, the human body seeks the nutrients it would receive in food from sleep. So, I was sleeping an awful lot. Would I ever do it again? Absolutely.

NC: You stopped your hunger strike after the 30th day. What was the reason for that?

Jeff: I discontinued the hunger strike because of health reasons and because the anti-trapping bill was before Congress. The beaver bill was under some public scrutiny and it's unlikely it will pass. I felt at least a little bit victorious. But, it had also come to a critical point. I had been hospitalized the previous day and I was told that my liver was failing. I didn't believe it, but 24 hours after my first hospital trip, I collapsed in my jail cell.

I fell to the concrete floor beneath me and on the way down, hit my chest and left shoulder on a toilet bowl. My breathing became powerful and rapid. My body went into convulsions and my vision was reduced to a few colors and shapes. I tried to speak to the medical staff, but the muscles in my face and jaw had contorted. There were a lot of Correction Officers around me, as an ambulance crew put an oxygen mask on me and put me on a stretcher. These C.O.s were laughing their asses off. They were telling jokes about Big Macs and fur coats. (All these comedians starving in the streets, and these guys were jail guards...what a shame!)

I was taken in the ambulance to the University Area Hospital where I continued to fight off medical treatment to the extent that I was able to. After almost seven hours, I was returned back to the correctional facility. Almost a day later, my vision wasn't returning and it was time to make a decision. Do I die for the sake of martyrdom? Do I live to fight another day? I thought about the contributions I have yet to make and the battles I've yet to fight. I thought about the family of young vegan warriors I've yet to raise. I weighed the options very carefully, and after some self-debate and inner-conflict, I tearfully forced down some bread.

I was very disappointed at first, but friends and activists from all over the place indicated that I had made the right choice. I am willing to die for this movement, but I don't think that was the best time to do it. This sparked a lot of discussion among activists across the country and I'm glad that it did. Hunger-striking is a powerful tool and not everyone is capable of a lengthy dietary deprivation. This is okay! If we, as a movement, use this tool at every opportunity, eventually our opposition will discover a way around it. We need to treat political hunger-striking as the essential and potential tactic that it really is. We should give it the dignity and consideration that it requires in every instance.

NC: What keeps you strong and positive in jail?

Jeff: Fortunately, I belong to a movement based on courage, kindness, compassion, and logic. So, inevitably, those involved are courageous, kind, compassionate, and logical. I've been blessed with strong, strong friends who love me and worry about me. I'm able to draw strength from these people. They lend me the bravery that this experience necessitates.

Equally strengthening is the knowledge of what awaits me. When those slamming steel doors open for me in July, I have a fight to rejoin and people to embrace, campaign, and crusade beside. There are so many people I want to meet. Not a day has passed where I didn't feel a tangible kindness from strangers. Whether it was letter or a discussion or just strong support, this movement has given me a lot.

I'm also lucky to have an angel of a girlfriend whose love and support has been as essential as the air I've breathed. I'd never have made it this far without her.

NC: You were imprisoned with two other activists for a small portion of your sentence. How much contact were you allowed to have with them, and how did it affect you when they were released?

Jeff: On the 28th of February I was remanded to the custody of this jail with Nicole Rogers and Christopher Tarbell. These brave souls are two of this movement's finest participants. We were separated even before our arrival here. I saw Chris for a few minutes a day until day ten when I was relocated to his housing unit. We were placed in cells almost next to each other for one day and I struggled to watch my brother be released the next morning. It was almost devastating to see him leave, but on the other hand, I was happy that his departure from this place would mean his deliverance into the arms of loved ones and comrades. I still had to fight the tears, mind you, but that only lasted for a little while.

Hours after Chris's release, I had learned that some daring and brilliant tactical actions had occurred in Sandy, Utah, courtesy of the A.L.F.! Interviews with the media kept me occupied and distracted for almost a week. I didn't get to see Nicole until the day prior to her release. When she did leave, after a month in captivity, I became overwhelmed with happiness and I felt secure. Secure, because the Syracuse A.D.L. was re-collecting their founder and brightest member. It's been nothing less than an honor to fight alongside someone of her intellect and kindness.

NC: Has the tremendous amount of support you have received from those on the outside affected you in any way?

Jeff: Words fail me. Everyday I am handed envelopes with addresses on the front from all over the U. S. and England. Those envelopes not only contain letters, but much needed strength. I'm clueless as to how I could even begin to repay what I've been given. And what's more, is the fact that activism has mushroom-clouded. That's the biggest support of all.

NC: Has jail in any way strengthened your convictions? How?

Jeff: Being in jail will strengthen the convictions of any person. This has been a difficult experience, to say the least, but it has instilled me in a sense of challenge. This entire thing has eradicated the fear from me. The reservations I had prior to this, no matter how little, have simply evaporated.

As activists, we all face captivity in jails across the globe. It could happen to any one of us. But once I've been through it, that's one less thing our opposition can do to me, one less thing to be afraid of.

NC: Do you have any advice for other activists in situations similar to your own?

Jeff: Well, I'm a little reluctant to give advice, because every jail and every activist is different. But, with activism on a steady increase, there is almost a guarantee for incarceration of effective activists. As our fight against the holocaust to animals continues to develop, our opposition will be significantly reluctant to allow us our freedom. I've very little doubt that the future holds more situations identical to that of mine, Tony Wong's, Rod Coronado's, or that of the Mass 4! But, with that comes a very positive aspect of our movement. If we weren't succeeding--if our movement wasn't an extremely progressive and powerful one--we wouldn't have the hurdles in front of us that we have right now. The jailings, the harassment, the blatant disregard for our civil liberties, the brutality at the hands of law enforcement. These are all tell-tale signs of our increasing effectiveness and the damaging toll we've actually taken against the defilers of Kingdom Animalia. Nobody ever told us that this would be an easy victory or a simple revolution, because it's not. If someone had told us that, they would be lying. We are fighting a righteous fight! It's going to get more difficult, so we need to anticipate--and be prepared for--more political prisoners. And we, as a movement, need to be ready to support them and carry on the fight with dignity.

NC: What are your feelings about the animal liberation movement today, in 1997, and where do you think it is headed?

Jeff: I see, far into the future, the eventual unification of humankind and animal. This will take a lot of time and effort, but we are involved in a movement that, technically speaking, is in its infancy. There was a time when Harriet Tubman was called a fanatic, a radical, a terrorist. We now know that Harriet Tubman was, in actuality, a hero--a hero who was confident enough in her beliefs and in her will to act ethically and know that those actions were the morally right things to do...and to hell with the consequences. She stood in the face of adversity!

There was a time when the concept of women voters was considered to be an absurdity. It took a large number of dedicated women who were jailed, harassed, beaten, and even killed, before the tide was turned. They stood in the face of adversity!

Eventually, there will come a time when the humans of the Earth will look back at the fur trade with shame. They will look at the days when laboratory animals were infected with cosmetics and disease, when wild animals were forced to perform cruel stunts for the sake of entertainment, and they will see how wrong it was. How wrong it is, right now. And they'll recognize us for, of course, standing in the face of adversity.

So, we've got some real progress to make, but we can make it. We can do it, because we are morally bound to the laws of kindness and nature, not to the laws of corruption in government and mankind. I think we'll be okay.