Trial by Fire: The SHAC7 and
The Future of Democracy
from No Compromise Issue 25

By Dr. Steven Best and Richard Kahn

Since 1999, Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) activists in the U.K. and U.S. have waged an aggressive direct action campaign against Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS), an insidious animal testing company notorious for extreme animal abuse (torturing and killing 500 animals a day) and for having manipulated research data. SHAC roared onto the historical stage by combining a shrewd knowledge of the law, no-nonsense direct action tactics, and a singular focus on one corporation that represents the evils of the entire vivisection industry.

From email and phone blockades to raucous home demonstrations, SHACtivists have attacked HLS and pressured over 100 companies to abandon financial ties to the vivisection firm. By 2001, the SHAC movement drove down HLS stock values from $15/share to less than $1/share.

Growing increasingly powerful through high-pressure tactics that take the fight to HLS and their supporters rather than to corrupt legislatures, the SHAC movement poses a clear and present danger to animal exploitation industries and the state that serves them. Staggered and driven into the ropes, it was certain that SHAC's opponents would fight back. Throwing futile jabs here and there, the vivisection industry and the state recently teamed up to mount a major counterattack.

On May 26, 2004, a police dragnet rounded up seven prominent animal rights activists in New Jersey, New York, Washington and California. Hordes of agents from the FBI, Secret Service, and other law agencies stormed into the activists' homes at the crack of dawn, guns drawn and with helicopters hovering above. Handcuffing those struggling for a better world, the state claimed another victory in its phony "war against terror."

The "SHAC 7" are Kevin Jonas, Lauren Gazzola, Jacob Conroy, Darius Fullmer, John McGee, Andrew Stepanian and Joshua Harper. The government has issued a five-count federal indictment that charges each activist, as well as SHAC USA, with violations of the 1992 Animal Enterprise Protection Act, the first federal law that explicitly seeks to protect animal exploitation industries from animal rights protests.

Additionally, SHAC USA, Jonas, Gazzola, and Conroy were each charged with conspiracy to stalk HLS-related employees across state lines, along with three counts of interstate stalking with the intent to induce fear of death or serious injury in their "victims." All of the charges bring a maximum $250,000 fine each. The main charge of animal enterprise terrorism carries a maximum of three years in prison, while each of the charges of stalking or conspiracy to stalk brings a five-year maximum sentence.

The arrests came just over a year after the FBI's domestic terrorism squad raided SHAC headquarters in New Jersey and on the heels of constant surveillance and harassment. Not coincidentally, the round-up also followed shortly after numerous executives from animal exploitation industries appeared before a congressional committee to stigmatize the style of activism practiced by SHAC (and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) as a form of terrorism and to plead for new legal measures to counter the increasingly effective direct action tactics of such groups. Following the arrests, Christopher Christie, U.S. Attorney for New Jersey, described the government's intention behind the arrests in dramatically ironic and perverse terms: "Our goal is to remove uncivilized people from civilized society."

The federal indictment against the SHAC 7 is a potential watershed in the history of the animal rights movement, for it represents the boldest governmental attack on activists to date, and it likely augurs a new wave of political repression in response to the growing effectiveness of militant animal liberation politics. Regardless of whether it should win or lose in this proceeding, the corporate-state machine seeks to cast an ominous shadow over activists who dare to exercise their First Amendment rights. Tellingly, corporate exploiters of animals want to respond to criticism and protest with demands for surveillance, harassment, intimidation, arrests and appearances before grand juries.

The Kangaroo Courts of Capitalism

Little more than a week before the May 26 raid on the SHAC 7, a phalanx of high-level vivisectors and animal industry representatives marched into the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary to carp about the inadequacy of existing regulations to crush SHAC and other militant animal rights groups.

On May 18, 2004, chair of the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) took opinions from: U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott; John E. Lewis, FBI Deputy Assistant Director for Counterterrorism; William Green and Jonathan Blum, senior vice presidents of Chiron Corporation (a noxious puppy killer associated with HLS) and Yum! Brands, Inc. (the super-sized parent company behind most well-known fast-food chains); and Dr. Stuart Zola, director of the Yerkes Primate Center.

One after another, these motley billion-dollar boys shamelessly tried to cast themselves, their colleagues, and their family members as innocent victims of animal rights hooligans as they appealed for assistance in stopping what they claimed amounts to "terrorism." Indeed, to listen to their combined testimony, the United States of America is a sort of uncontrolled Baghdad or Kabul war zone, besieged by marauding animal militias, rather than a highly-centralized network of power bent on repressing dissent and regulating everyday life for the capital mongers.

The 2001 passage of the USA PATRIOT Act and its vilification of "domestic terrorism" was by no means the first state volley in the war against animal liberation. For over a decade, animal exploitation industries and the state have collaborated to create laws intended to protect corporations and researchers from animal rights activists. In 1992, the federal government enacted the first major law designed to strike at the freedom of protest and dissent, the Title 18 Animal Enterprise Protection Act (AEPA), which contains subsection 43 on "animal enterprise terrorism." The law targets anyone who "intentionally damages or causes the loss of any property (including animals or records) used by the animal enterprise, or conspires to do so." It also seeks to make an offender of whomever "travels in interstate or foreign commerce, or uses or causes to be used the mail or any facility in interstate or foreign commerce for the purpose of causing physical disruption to the functioning of an animal enterprise." Yet, if the corporate-state complex has its way, Sen. Hatch will soon introduce new legislation that will make the legal right to transform the way institutions conduct themselves–through measures such as protests, demonstrations, and boycotts–a felony crime.

William Green of Chiron Corporation typified the whining before the Judiciary Committee when he asked Congress to send a stronger message to animal and earth activists and to open the door to greater surveillance by federal, state, and local officials. Even though Chiron's revenue grew to $1.8 billion in 2003, apparently the $2.5 million in lost earnings caused by SHAC, along with the tarnishing of the corporation's reputation, makes SHAC enough of a threat that biotechnology companies and vivisectors want Congress to gut the Constitution to protect assumed corporate "rights" to profit from animal cruelty and scientific fraud. Thus, Green asked Congress to impose harsh 10-year sentences on the anti-vivisection "terrorists" and to define "animal enterprise" in broader terms that include not only all manner of organizations that use animals, but the non-animal enterprises that contract with these outfits as well.

Fortunately, not everyone in government is moved by the hysterics of the animal research community. The committee's minority leader, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), refused to even be present for this corporate conspiracy masked as a Senate hearing. Instead, Leahy wrote a statement for the public record that vilified the proceedings, wherein he remarked that "…most Americans would not consider the harassment of animal testing facilities to be 'terrorism,' any more than they would consider anti-globalization protestors or anti-war protestors or women's health activists to be terrorists."

As he wondered aloud why not a single animal rights advocate was brought before the committee in a hearing supposedly designed to investigate "Animal Rights: Activism vs. Criminality," Leahy also repeated his request for an oversight hearing with U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, who had dodged questioning from the Committee for over a year.

First Amendment Controversies

The key issue for American citizens in the indictment of the SHAC 7 concerns the defendants' First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and association. Critics of direct action protest, such as those who testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, invariably claim that they respect the right to dissent, distinguishing "legitimate" (and easily contained) expressions of criticism and objection from those involving alleged criminal action. But according to U.S. Attorney Christie, the SHAC 7 defendants were "exhorting and encouraging" actions not protected by the constitution.

The strategy of the corporate-state is to define SHAC-styled direct action as beyond the scope of constitutional protection. They seek to narrow the meaning of the First Amendment and therefore to subject SHAC and other activists to an increasingly broad scope of criminal prosecution. Key questions, then, emerge from the United States' attempt to prosecute SHAC: Do corporations and the state, as they claim, really respect the First Amendment and the democratic political sensibilities behind it? Are SHAC actions legal or illegal expressions of dissent? And, if they are illegal, do they constitute a special form of terrorism deserving of federal injunction, or are the myriad of extant laws capable of penalizing specific acts of civil disobedience sufficient?

The latitude of the First Amendment is broad but, as is widely understood, rights are not absolute. The First Amendment does not grant individuals unqualified freedom to say or do anything they desire as a matter of civic right. According to classical liberal doctrine, such as formulated by philosopher-economist J.S. Mill, liberties extend to the point where one's freedom impinges upon the good or freedom of another. Thus, no one has the right to injure, assault, or take the life of another endowed with rights. That, of course, is the theory. In American political practice, restrictions on liberty are frequently applied to consumers and citizens alike, but rarely to corporations who–capitalizing on the predatory logic of property rights–systematically exploit humans, animals, and the environment to their own advantage.

While there have been some strong defenses of the First Amendment by the U.S. Supreme Court, such as the protection of the Ku Klux Klan's use of hate speech, there have also been severe lapses of judgment. Indeed, the entire last century is scarred by egregious Constitutional violations, ranging from the Red Scare of the 1920s, the loyalty oaths of the 1930s, and Sen. Joseph McCarthy's witch hunts in the 1950s, to the FBI COINTELPRO operations of the 1960s and 1970s, and the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act in 2001. U.S. history is riddled with precedents that demonstrate systematic and sweeping violations of First Amendment rights, such that freedom of speech is the exception, not the rule, of life in the USA.

The indictment of the SHAC 7 is just one of many clear indicators that we have entered into yet another chilling period of social repression and the quelling of dissent. While the media have largely focused public attention on Bush's imperial Pax Americana, domestic police and federal agents have violently repressed demonstrations, surveilled legal organizations, collected and disseminated information on activists, and summoned individuals to grand juries in the attempt to intimidate and coerce information. Within this conservative social climate, as people are besieged by monopolistic capitalism, quasi-fascistic patriotism, religious ranting, and cultural paranoia, the corporate-state complex is using SHAC to launch its latest attack upon the Bill of Rights.

Put in this context, SHAC clearly is within its rights to criticize HLS, Chiron and other corporations for exploiting animals. As established in landmark rulings by the Supreme Court, such as Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969), the First Amendment grants citizens the right to free speech up to the point of advocating violence toward others in such a way that violent actions might result in an immediate and imminent threat of one's speech. SHAC reports on violent actions taken by individuals under the banner of groups such as the ALF or Revolutionary Cells, and it posts home addresses and personal information of HLS employees or affiliates. But SHAC does not advocate violence against anyone, certainly not in any manner that incites immediate and imminent criminal actions.

Moreover, critics never trouble themselves with the crucial distinction between SHAC USA Inc., an aboveground, legal and non-violent organization, and "the SHAC movement," comprised of a wide-range of activists united against HLS that sometimes use illegal tactics and may have an underground presence. In its economically and politically-motivated confusion, the corporate-state complex has targeted SHAC USA Inc. rather than the shadowy SHAC movement.

In NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co. (1982), the Supreme Court ruled that an organization cannot be held accountable for actions of its members or followers; thus, SHAC USA Inc. is not responsible for the actions of the SHAC movement. To make the state's case against SHAC even more difficult, the Supreme Court ruled in 2003 that anti-abortionists had the legal right to hold home demonstrations against abortion rights advocates, a decision that has clear implications for SHAC's tactics against HLS.