Staying on Target and Going the Distance:
An Interview with U.K. A.L.F. Press Officer Robin Webb
from No Compromise Issue 22
 

NC: How long have you been involved in animal advocacy, and how did you first get involved?

I became involved well over twenty years ago; it must be approaching the quarter-century soon.
The catalyst occurred shortly after taking a new job at an electronics company that, unrecognised by me at the time, was next door to a small slaughterhouse. Seeing the trucks began to play on my mind until, one day, I went for a lunchtime walk and saw some pigs being unloaded. Sitting at my desk during the afternoon I could smell them and hear them. That evening, I arrived home and found my partner, Margaret, had prepared pork chops for dinner. I made the connection; the blinds were torn from my eyes . . . I couldn’t eat a part of what I at last perceived to be an individual with their own feelings and needs.

There and then we became vegetarian. With Margaret coming from a rural farming area, so that we had some dormant knowledge of the agricultural scene, progression to the vegan way of life, although not easy back then, took just three months. Finding out also about the horrors of vivisection and perceiving, at last, the many other abuses made that a pretty traumatic time for both of us.

NC: How did you end up taking on the role of being the British A.L.F. Press Officer?

Ronnie Lee, co-founder of the A.L.F., was the first press officer. At that time the press office was part of the A.L.F. Supporters Group (the SG). In 1986, Ronnie was tried at Sheffield Crown Court, in the U.K., and convicted of conspiring to incite persons unknown to commit criminal damage and arson. When Ronnie was arrested Robin Lane took over the role of press officer, still a part of the SG, which lasted until his conviction – despite me being a defense witness! – on similar charges at Cardiff Crown Court in May 1988.

To protect the essential work of the SG, prisoner welfare, etc, it was thought unwise to maintain a formal spokesperson following Robin Lane’s arrest in 1987. Unfortunately, this gave free rein in the news media for anti-A.L.F. quotes from animal abusers. Unsympathetic national ‘animal rights’ groups also took advantage with comments such as the now-infamous “setting the movement back ten years.” Pro-A.L.F. voices came only from those who had been convicted of A.L.F. activity, served a sentence, and could thus be presented as ‘ex-A.L.F. activists.’ The main problem with that was the media wanted immediate access to a spokesperson without having to track down one of several people who may or may not be available at that time!

Sometime during 1991 it was decided that it would be a good thing to once again have a formal spokesperson to put the A.L.F.’s point of view across. But who? And how to protect the SG from charges of conspiracy and incitement?

At that time I was, among other things, a member of the RSPCA’s (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) ruling council, therefore enjoying a so-called respectable, responsible image. I had also, for example, known Ronnie for around ten years and had defended the A.L.F.’s philosophy and actions on several occasions.

To cut a long story short, on 31st October 1991... Hallowe’en ... it was announced that the A.L.F. Press Office had been created as a unit independent of the SG, with myself as press officer. One of my main policies from that time on has been never to criticise any action, whatever it may be, so long as it has been undertaken with the sincere intention of furthering animal liberation.

NC: What role do you see direct action groups like the A.L.F. playing in the Animal Liberation Movement?

The Animal Liberation Front, together with more radical groups such as the Animal Rights Militia and Justice Department, is the hard cutting edge of the war against abuse and exploitation of the weak and innocent, irrespective of gender, race or species. Education, outreach, lobbying politicians, sanctuary work and similar paths of action are all important in their own ways. But, history has shown, with the struggles against slavery and for the emancipation of women as two examples, that saying “Please” for change is rarely sufficient. The State and the Establishment have to be challenged; they have to be fought, because change to benefit the underprivileged will never be given freely by those who benefit from privilege.

The question should not be “Do you support the A.L.F.?” The question should be “Are we all fighting for the same ends?”

If we are all fighting for the same ends, animal liberation, then we must expend our energies in criticism of the abusers rather than of those whose goals are the same but whose tactics may differ.

NC: How would you deal with someone who says they want to “join” the A.L.F.?

It may be reasonably argued that one is only a member of the A.L.F. whilst actually undertaking an A.L.F. action. There is no membership list of elite compassionate commandos.

The A.L.F. has had, and retains, an unchanging triad of policies. One, to rescue individual animals from suffering or potential suffering then place them in good, permanent homes or, where appropriate, release them into their natural environment.

Two, to damage or destroy property and equipment associated with animal abuse. That has a dual effect. It takes that property out of the arena of animal abuse, so that it can no longer be used to cause harm. Also, it compounds the economic loss by increasing insurance premiums and security costs not just for the company or institution attacked, but also across that whole discipline of exploitation. The simple intention is to price them out of business.

The third policy is to take every reasonable precaution not to harm or endanger life, either human or non-human.

Anyone, so long as they follow at least a vegetarian—but preferably vegan—lifestyle, can go out and undertake an action that falls within those policies and claim it as the Animal Liberation Front. There is no hierarchy; there are no leaders. There is just a compulsion to follow your heart in pursuit of justice. That is why the A.L.F. cannot be smashed, it cannot be effectively infiltrated, it cannot be stopped. You, each and every one of you: you are the A.L.F.

And if someone wishes to act as the Animal Rights Militia or the Justice Department? Simply put, the third policy of the A.L.F. no longer applies.

NC: What value do you see in talking to the media about A.L.F. actions, and what is the media image of the animal liberation movement like in England?

The value in talking to the news media lays not just in explaining why some good people are prepared to work outside current legislation and risk their freedom but also in being able to reveal the obscenities behind whatever area of abuse or exploitation has been attacked and highlighted. Of course, the news media will misquote, edit and even make up what one is supposed to have said. For that reason I prefer live radio or television where no editor can interfere with my words.

The media image of A.L.F. activists in the UK was originally one of “typical British animal welfarists who, being a bit eccentric, are maybe going a bit far – but, after all, eccentricity is a national trait to be proud of.”

Then, during the mid-1980s, department stores that had refused to remove fur from their stocks began to burn down. The great god ‘Profit’ was really under threat. Suddenly, almost overnight, these “cuddly eccentrics” became transformed by the media – no doubt at the behest of those behind their financial considerations – into “axe-wielding, baby-eating maniacs” who were a threat to the very fabric of society!

From a personal point of view, I seem to have settled into a role of ‘the acceptable face of terrorism’ but I’m not too sure what they mean by that. Certainly I’m the only person within the U.K. who’s been the victim of quadruple jeopardy! I guess that’s some kind of compliment?

NC: With those last comments in mind, how have the authorities viewed the press office?

A couple of brilliant activists, Keith Mann and Vivien Smith, were arrested on active service, so to speak, two weeks before the new press office was introduced. They had information with them about the forthcoming launch so my home was raided almost immediately, which was a pretty good start! I’ve been arrested many times by various police forces including the anti-terrorist squad (SO-13) and one time I was imprisoned for seven months without trial having been told by a senior police officer, “we’re going to lock you up to shut you up” ... that, together with travel restrictions, gagging orders and, on one occasion, police forces so eager to get ‘evidence’ against me that one force which raided my home subsequently seized more of my property from another force that had beaten them to it. The National Union of Journalists described some of this as “an extraordinary vendetta” against me. And the secret service working with the security forces tried to set me up with a sawn-off shotgun, presumably to portray the movement as violent. That took two years to get the case thrown out ... and that was only achieved because the State wanted to avoid disclosing its role in the conspiracy.

Of course, late last year I undertook my first visit to the United States, intending to stay for just five days. Eight days in the County Jail and four months without my passport later... for simply walking across some grass... I finally got home owing U.S. lawyers several thousand dollars and thinking maybe the U.K. isn’t so bad after all! Thanks are due the FBI for being so concerned about me whilst a guest in your country by accompanying me almost everywhere I went.

NC: How do you deal with questions that suggest the use of arson is dangerous, or that economic sabotage is violent? And what do you say when asked about non-A.L.F. actions that involve real violence (or the threat thereof)?

The A.L.F, as well as its predecessor, the Band of Mercy, has used arson as a tactic for some thirty years with no one having been seriously harmed. The suffragettes used arson as a tactic and history has not condemned their actions. I believe that history will show that animal liberation, the ultimate liberation struggle, was equally justified in its use of such tactics.

Economic sabotage cannot be ‘violent.’ Violence can only perpetrated against a being that has awareness, who can perceive that they are on the receiving end of violence. A door, a meat truck, a vivisection laboratory: these are not sentient. How can one be ‘violent’ against a thing that has no feelings? Of course, there is in our society wanton, mindless violence ‘just for kicks’ but that falls into quite a different category from what may be termed ‘constructive destruction.’

The avowed use of violence by the Animal Rights Militia and Justice Department has, so far, been more threatened than actual. The overwhelming violence is against the countless hundreds of millions of our brothers and sisters every year on the farms, in the vivisection laboratories, in the circuses and zoos and all the other hellholes. Also, let us not forget our own species’ suffering while we still have child labour, slavery and prejudice in this world.

The only human deaths and serious injuries have been against animal liberation activists, against hunt saboteurs, against those fighting for a just world. I am confident that, if the animals could fight for themselves, we would have seen a heck of a lot of dead animal abusers already.

How can people in our movement have condemned the A.L.F.’s economic sabotage as violence whilst, for example, supporting Nelson Mandela during the ANC’s armed struggle? To do so is speciesist. The simple question is: “Is short-term violence justifiable in pursuit of a long-term peace?” I leave the answer to each individual’s conscience.

NC: This issue’s focus section is on “Going the Distance” for animal liberation. Amongst other things it examines why so many activists burnout or leave the movement. What do you feel causes this to happen, and how do you stay motivated and active?

Why do people burn out and leave the movement? I would guess for a number of reasons. The seemingly slow rate of progress towards our goal is one. But we still have slavery, racism, sexism and all the other ‘-isms’ within our own species after so many years of fighting such injustices. It is going to be a long, hard struggle to achieve animal liberation. All I can offer is that slow progress certainly doesn’t mean defeat.

Another present-day problem, if you can call it that, is that the animal liberation movement is now established. People no longer feel they are part of building a movement. Like other long-established campaigns they can walk in at one end and walk out the other without thinking they have made a difference. But they have made a difference and I wish they would stay with it and continue to make a difference.

The proliferation of movements and concerns may be another motive, diverting people’s involvement elsewhere, but animal liberation is the ultimate, all-encompassing movement. Once we respect individuals of other species we will automatically respect our own. Once we recognise that those species, those nations, so much older than ours have a right to their own air, land or ocean on this planet then we will strive harder to protect it and save it. I cannot conceive of a single human concern that the achievement of animal liberation would not solve.

How do I stay motivated? Well, my batteries do get low; sometimes the road looks too hard or the direction signs seem confusing. Then I cast into my memory for stories of suffering of individuals. I don’t mean the vast horrors of vivisection or animal farming or the fishing industry that are on a scale beyond comprehension; I’m talking about the suffering of an individual mouse or an individual sparrow or an individual underprivileged person. Then I get angry; I get very angry, but that anger is channelled into energy, into determination. Once I recognised, so many years ago, the injustices of life I had to something about it. I’ve worked and campaigned with the physically disadvantaged, I’ve been a trade union activist and now I’m fighting for something that covers all the wrongs of this world. How can I stop? How can I not be motivated by what I’ve learned over the years?

NC: Do you feel that the animal liberation movement has made much progress over the years? And where do you see the movement going in the years to come?

Progress has been made but some would say it has been too slow. Think of how many tens of thousands of years we’ve had animal exploitation, both human and non-human. Now think of the last twenty years alone: There’s been an explosion of vegan fare in major supermarkets – soya milks, tofu products, and non-dairy chocolate. Boots and shoes, coats and pants can be made free from fur, leather, suede, silk and wool. Public awareness has never been greater since the A.L.F. and undercover investigators declared war on the ‘A-B-C-D’ syndrome (animals behind closed doors). Yes, we’ve made progress and we should be pleased and proud. But, it’s not enough. It’s not nearly enough. As with slavery, welfare is not the answer; total abolition is the only cure. To wipe all abuse and exploitation from the face of this world must be our demand.

I try to explain that, while there’s one individual anywhere in this world being abused or exploited it’s one too many. The war—and it is a war—for animal liberation will continue until that one individual is free and we have a just world, a free world, a world where every individual can live in peace.

Where do I see the movement going in the years to come? Towards that very goal ... surely that’s worth fighting for with every weapon at our disposal? Thanks for listening and good luck to you all. Well, go on... what are you waiting for?