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Flying over Fresno, I looked out the window of the airplane and saw a landscape littered with factory farm buildings that housed thousands of animals in complete misery, confined in cramped cages and pens until they were ready for slaughter. I got a foreboding feeling about the setting in which I was about to land.
I was en route to an unprecedented conference called "Revolutionary Environmentalism," held at the California State University, Fresno (CSU). It brought together notorious animal rights and environmental activists that, at one time or another, had been arrested for direct action and acts of animal liberation and property destruction, along with noted academics who write about and support this controversial aspect of the animal rights and environmental movements.
The implicit understanding of "revolutionary" involved (1) a critique of the capitalist system and its privileging of profit over all other values; (2) opposition to the Western worldview of anthropocentrism which disconnects human beings from nature and views the natural world as resources for human consumption; (3) direct action tactics that bypass the political process as an ineffectual means of change, that practice civil disobedience and lawbreaking, and that sometimes destroy the property of individuals or industries that harm animals or degrade nature.
Organized by political science professor Mark Somma,CSU approved hosting this provocative and singular conference. Rarely do universities support such controversial topics, but CSU approval was all the more remarkable as animal rights and environmental activists have declared war against interests such as agribusiness that are among its key financial contributors.
In attendance were former
Animal Liberation Front (ALF) activists Rod Coronado and Gary Yourofsky; Captain Paul Watson of the Sea Shepard Conservation Society; former
Earth Liberation Front (ELF) spokespersons Craig Rosebaugh and James Leslie Pickering; Dr. Bron Taylor, chair of the Religion Department at the University of Florida; Dr. Rik Scarce from the Science and Technology Studies Department at Michigan State University; faculty members from various departments at CSU; and myself.
During a time when the Bush administration put the nation on "high" alert for terrorist attacks, the conference brought together representatives from the FBI's most wanted "domestic terrorist" groups--the ALF and ELF--and many others to discuss radical environmentalism and direct action. The stage was set for high drama.
An Irate Industry.
The passion play started in December 2001 when the Center For Consumer Freedom (CCF), a conservative group representing restaurant and tavern owners, got wind of the conference and put notice of it on the group's website with an article entitled "Legitimizing the Lunatics." Setting the precedent for conservative reaction, the CCF vilified the conference participants and condemned CSU for allowing "criminals" and "eco-terrorists" on its campus, thereby allegedly justifying their cause. In a case study of how industry propaganda and disinformation machines operate, CCF whipped up a climate of fear and hysteria by alerting other interest groups around the country about the event. CCF misrepresented university motives, absurdly exaggerated the danger of violence, and caricatured conference participants in crude terms while never questioning the impact of industry on animals and the earth.
Needless to say, the Fresno agribusiness community was outraged that the university it contributed money to would host a cadre of people militantly opposed to its business and values. Weeks before it happened, the conference dominated Fresno media and talk radio stations. People throughout the university and community debated it with great intensity, although with precious little information about direct action movements. Symptomatic of the paranoia hovering over Fresno as thick as its deadly fog of air pollution, car dealers hired extra security out of fear that hoards of black-clothed, balaclava-wearing thugs would pounce on their SUV lots in pre-dawn raids, as in fact the ELF has done in other states.
Prominent among the mob of detractors was John Harris, owner of one of the largest beef ranches in the San Joaquin Valley. Harris penned an op-ed in the Fresno Bee calling the conference participants "terrorists." Many backers of CSU threatened to withdraw financial support in the belief that the university "sponsored" or "supported" eco-terrorism. Republican California state Sen. Dennis Hollingsworth joined the chorus of those decrying the "waste" of taxpayer money and demanding reducing state funds to the university proportionately.
The university issued press releases and statements on its website that rejected these charges and insisted it was only hosting a timely debate about issues that clearly relate to the critics. Wisely, the university acknowledged that animal and earth liberation movements were part of a new political culture and it is better to try to understand rather than ignore them. Many critics were not convinced, and felt that the university was unavoidably validating repugnant radical viewpoints. These same people insisted that they are not opponents of free speech rights, while they made a convenient exception to the rule. Symptomatic of the level of bias, a CSU student interviewed in the Los Angeles Times compared the conference members to the Ku Klux Klan, as CSU classics and humanities professor Bruce Thorton argued the university should no more sponsor this group of radicals than it should child molesters.
Other critics proclaimed the conference was rigged unfairly to advance a one-sided agenda without opposing voices. In fact, agribusiness interests were invited to speak but declined the offer. Moreover, the charge of bias is absurd because the conference was the one time university and community members could hear alternative viewpoints rather than the agribusiness propaganda that dominates Fresno. The conference, in other words, was the balance critics claimed was lacking.
Free Speech Except For You.
Putting aside invidious comparisons with activists who espouse compassion, non-violence, and anti-discriminatory views of any kind, does not even the KKK have a right to speak? Is not the university the most appropriate forum for debating controversial issues? Does truth not emerge through the clash of opposing positions? Are direct action tactics and the new liberation movements not among the urgent issues of the day that deserve a public airing? Is it wrong to discuss what is happening to animals and the environment in an era of intense development of the natural world and mass mechanization? Should students be "protected" from controversial views or do they need to hear them? Can they not make up their own minds, or do they need the paternalism of the state patriarchs?
The greater harm is not in having the debate, but in silencing it. The representatives of the agricultural industry and their conspirators showed themselves to be cowards, morally bankrupt, devoid of respect for truth and democracy, and shameless peddlers of propaganda. The university, conversely, was courageous as it withstood attacks from ardent supporters, from other members of the faculty and the community, and from the state government. If nothing else, the university gave local business interests the opportunity to meet and better understand their enemy.
Most of the conference was closed to the non-university community in order to prevent disruption and guarantee the kind of sober dialogue the organizers and participants sought. Thus, conference participants spoke to students and faculty in classes, seminars, and panel discussions. The main event, an evening panel open to anyone in the community with a ticket, drew 800 people. Like the classroom visits and the day panels, the audience response was overwhelmingly positive.
Instead of being bombarded with one-sided opinions, vilifications, slander, and distortion of the highest order--as they were in the weeks before the conference--thousands of members of the university and community had their first opportunity to hear radical activists and academics represent their views in their own words and in a full context. As the conference participants spoke to classes throughout the university and presented their views in numerous panels and a huge public forum, they had the opportunity to explain the legitimacy and need for direct action tactics, and to discuss the origins, motivations, and goals of the new liberation movements.
Whatever audience members concluded, it was obvious that these "lunatics" are intelligent, aware, and compassionate people who lost their government trust blinders for good reason. They are people committed to the defense of the natural and social worlds against the ever-escalating assault of industries on the forests, rivers, wilderness, and animals, and their radicalism emerged organically out of their political experience. In effect, radicals are products of the state that condemns them, for if government enforced laws and protected citizens, and if industries were not allowed "ownership" rights over animals and the environment, there would be no need for an ALF, ELF, and their academic supporters.
Will Monkeywrench For Nature.
Throughout the event, the activists and academics challenged the charge that destroying property is violence by insisting that violence can only be committed against sentient beings and not objects. The ALF and ELF are deeply committed to principles of nonviolence and see themselves as adhering to the peaceful direct action traditions of Gandhi and King. In the history of ALF and ELF actions, no human being has ever been injured or killed, whereas activists have been assaulted and killed by industry goons and the state. Subsequently, panelists rejected the charge that they are "terrorists" as an Orwellian reversal of the truth. ALF and ELF activists harm no one and protect animals and the environment from severe harm; conversely, industries torture and kill billions of animals as they devastate ecosystems throughout the planet. Thus, who are the real terrorists?
Key questions emerged throughout the conference: who are the ALF and ELF and why do they exist? Do these groups play a positive or negative role in the struggles to protect the natural world? Why do they feel it is necessary to break laws? Can no real and enduring progress be gained through legislation? Are property destruction and arson acceptable tactics? What role do radical academics play in the new liberation movement and how should activists and academics relate?
The new liberation movements are relatively young, having emerged in the late 1970s (the ALF), the early 1980s (Earth First!), and the 1990s (the ELF). In strong terms, activists explained that they have found it necessary to work outside the legal system and flout its laws, because the U.S. government is thoroughly corrupt in its representation of powerful corporate interests over the people. Activists have no trust in the state, and they described how, in cases such as the Animal Welfare Act, laws serve only to regulate exploitation and violence, or to distract attention from the fact that the state serves the interests of industries. Known for sinking and ramming whaling ships, Paul Watson explained that he does not break laws; rather he upholds international treaties supposed to protect whales and other animals but which in fact are not enforced.
Activists did not block the possibility of others making useful reforms within the state. The Humane Society of the United States, for example, has been the driving force behind creating special elections that bypass the influence of industries on governments and allow citizens themselves to pass laws against various forms of animal cruelty. But the direct action activists emphasized how difficult it is to make progressive laws, how poorly they are enforced, and how they are constantly rewritten and watered down through industry pressure on government. In an extreme situation where after decades of hard work by animal rights and environmental groups ever more animals are being killed and abused and the destruction of the earth advances rapidly, activists feel that "extreme" measures are needed to defend the earth and its animal species from attack.
Liberation: Coming to a Town Near You.
While the country feared another attack from the Al Qaeda and remained on high alert status, activists and academics gathered peacefully to talk about the crisis in the natural world. Although they provoked anger with many, the conference members had a deep and lasting impact on many students who for the first time heard radical viewpoints instead of industry propaganda. Along with the outrage, there was also appreciation for alternative perspectives and challenges to the state, capitalism, and the Western anthropocentric mindset that views the natural world as nothing but resources for human beings to use as they see fit.
Clearly, this band of "eco-terrorists" is no threat to national security, although the movements they represent or defend do pose serious threats to industries that exploit animals and the earth. The new liberation movements can be compared to the Black Panthers of the 1960s to the degree that mainstream thinking frames them as radical, extreme, and violent. Or, they can be likened to the abolitionist movement of the nineteenth century insofar as they seek to liberate and protect a living world from those who illegitimately claim rights of property ownership over it. Along with globalization and genetic engineering, animal rights and radical environmentalism are among the most urgent and heated topics of the day.
Flushed with excitement over a successful and historically significant education forum, I wondered about its long-term impact. Would there be more or less free speech at Fresno in the future? Can the spark of the conference ignite activity among an otherwise passive student body and dormant campus? Was the door opened to other radical viewpoints, or would there be a strong reaction and efforts to reindoctrinate the community with agribusiness propaganda? Can there be more conferences like this, or was it a singular event, both in terms of bringing together a unique combination of individuals and getting a university to host and fund it? (In fact, since the Fresno conference, a conference of radical environmental activists was featured at Rice University in Houston, Texas, and provoked similar ire against the university for using tax dollars to sponsor "eco-terrorists."
Moreover, another university-sponsored conference of radical activists and academics is being planned for spring 2004 around the publication of the forthcoming book, Terrorists or Freedom Fighters: Reflections on the Liberation of Animals, co-edited by Tony Nocella and myself.)
Unfortunately, one of the main issues of the conference, the relation between radical academics and activists, was never engaged. Academics certainly appreciate the activists, but I heard anti-theory/academic biases voiced on occasion by some activists. Whether appreciated by all or not, it was important that academics were present to speak a different discourse informed by their study of history, sociology, and philosophy. There is a need for the new liberation movements to be taught in university courses; to be studied and debated at an academic level by sociologists, philosophers, political scientists, and others; and to be involved in public debates. While many radical academics are deeply involved in activist causes, teaching and writing can be important modes of activism. Educating students and the public about the history, ethics, and politics of militant direct action movements is an important service academics can perform as they help to legitimate animal and earth liberation as serious and important topics of discussion.
Despite the new attack on activism and constitutional rights in the era of the "PATRIOT Act," animal and earth liberation movements continue to wage war against the destructive planetary machine of capitalism. As capitalist industries destroy ever more human and animal life and devour the earth, opposition movements to this genocide and ecocide will and must escalate. As they do, and become ever more serious threats to industries, the state will fight back with ferocity, as it is doing currently through the Patriot Act and its even more repressive sequel soon to debut in our land, "PATRIOT Act 2," or the "Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003."
One can only hope that the coming struggles will not be violent, but history shows that when the stakes are this high, moderation is not always exercised.
Dr. Steven Best is associate professor and chair of philosophy at the University of Texas-El Paso. He has published numerous books and articles on the topics of social theory, cultural studies, science and technology, and postmodernism. His next book will be Moral Progress and Animal Rights: The Struggle For Human Evolution. Some of his writings are posted at utminers.utep.edu/best/.
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