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L to R: The six members of the SHAC7 (the seventh is SHAC, Inc.): Andrew Stepanian, Lauren Gazzola, Kevin Kjonaas, Joshua Harper, Jacob Conroy, and Darius Fulmer.
by Dr. Steven Best and Anthony J. Nocella II
As corporations escalate their bloody and destructive assault on animals, biodiversity, and the Earth, so too is the FBI ratcheting up its attack on activists who defend the rights of nature. This is not a coincidence, but a strategic attempt to silence voices that speak truth to power, with the state doing the bidding of petroleum, gas, timber, dairy, cattle, and vivisection industries.
The Cops Come A Knockin'
On March 14, 2006, as we began writing this article, our close friend Nick Cooney was being arrested at his home in Philadelphia. Here is Nick's account of what happened that morning:
It was 8:00 a.m. on a Tuesday morning when I woke up to a loud crashing sound. I looked out the window, saw police cars lined in front of my house, and my first thought was, "Shit, our house is getting raided again." I called up to my girlfriend, who immediately got on the phone to warn other activists in case this was not an isolated incident and they might be next. I went downstairs and opened the front door, and found a gun pointed at my head. I was grabbed and handcuffed and led outside to a police car. In all, about ten police and FBI agents were at the house, and probably at least one Joint Terrorism Task Force officer as well. They had a body warrant for my arrest, meaning they had a warrant to take me in on some charges that had been filed against me. They questioned my two housemates who were home, including making one leave the house and stand outside in his underwear, making them show IDs, and asking them plenty of questions. They spent about 45 minutes going through the house and looking at everything (remember, they had no search warrant and I was already in custody sitting in a patrol car), including opening the sealed mail of one of my housemates. I was taken to the West Philadelphia regional police station where the FBI told me the charges against me at which point I laughed at them out loud when I found out all this was over misdemeanor charges, for allegedly making "terrorist threats" at a peaceful demonstration months before. I was fingerprinted and spent the rest of the day waiting to see the judge for a bail hearing. I didn't get any food or water, but some soothing "smooth jazz" music made the day pass quickly enough.
At 9:00 p.m., I went before the judge via a video screen in order to have my bail set. The FBI, arguing on behalf of the prosecution, asked the judge to set bail at $50,000 and tried to justify that by arguing that I was connected with the Animal Liberation Front and other such "terrorists." The other inmates at the jail all received bails much lower than that, despite the fact that they had been arrested for things like selling crack, one for breaking his wife's jaw, another for robbing a family. Fortunately, I have a terrific lawyer. After my arrest that morning, my friends had gotten in touch with him and so he was present at the bail hearing. He argued the bail down to $15,000, and a few hours later I was out on the ten percent option (paying $1,500). I'm not very happy about the fact that I had to pay $1,500 to the city in exchange for them and the FBI charging me with ridiculous charges, but it was either that or spend the next two months in jail awaiting my pretrial hearing. Happy to be out, I had some great vegan Chinese food and the next day was up at 9:00 a.m. doing animal rights work as usual.
What was particularly odd about this arrest was the timing of itless than two weeks after the SHAC 7 verdict, but months after the demonstration that the charges stem from actually took placeand the way in which they arrested me. The charges are misdemeanor charges, they are local to Philadelphia County, and so there was really no reason for the FBI to have been involved. There was certainly no reason for them to have barged through my door at gunpoint, searched my house without a warrant to do so, or attempted to keep me locked up by setting a prohibitively high bail. The police officers involved mad it clear to me that the FBI was directing the arrest and that I was (unofficially) the FBI's prisoner.
Why is the federal government involved in orchestrating and directing local county charges about what did or didn't happen at a small demonstration? Because they are in the midst of a campaign aimed at punishing and intimidating animal rights activists, in particular those involved in the campaign to close the notorious animal testing lab Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS).
The reason Nick and others believe that the FBI are going after him is because they believe him to be a "leader" of a campaign to close HLS. But the sad fact of the matter for the FBI is that there are no leaders in this campaign and that there are hundreds of Nick Cooneys. As noted by the radical African American Fred Hampton before his 1969 assassination, "When one of us falls, 1,000 will take his place." This has been proven over and over again in the anti-HLS campaign.
The Recent Blitzkrieg
Nick is only one of many activists who recently became victims of the latest and one of the most intense FBI roundups of animal and environmental activists.
- Part of the recent witch-hunt against animal and earth liberationists stems from an investigation developed in 2004, where seven independent field office investigations were organized together by the FBI Portland field office. Labeled "Operation Backfire," this year-long investigation on ELF and ALF actions in the Northwest had the help of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, and other local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies. It also was assisted by a number of activist-turned-informants and a number of infiltrators, such as a young female referred to as "Anna" (who has provided information on at least a dozen activists and has participated in a number of activist gatherings across the U.S.) and a male referred to as "Jake." The climax of this FBI operation was on December 7, 2005, when the FBI arrested six individuals on trumped up and false charges, including alleged involvement in ALF and ELF actions. Those arrested are Kevin Tubbs, 36 (now an informant); William Rodgers, 40 (who committed suicide on December 21, 2005, as a result of intense repressive conditions during his arrest and time in jail); Chelsea Gerlach, 28; Stanislas Meyerhoff, 28; Daniel McGowan, 31; and Sarah Harvey 28.
- On December 17, 2005, U.S. District Judge Thomas Zilly sentenced Christopher McIntosh to eight years in prison for setting fire to a McDonald's restaurant in Seattle, Washington in January 2003. McIntosh pleaded guilty to the charges which were claimed on behalf of the Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front.
- On December 23, 2005, Peter Young was indicted on charges of the liberation of minks from a fur farm in 1997. Currently, he is serving two years in a federal prison and is now facing state charges for the same action.
- On January 13, 2006, three individuals, Eric McDavid, Zachary Jensen, and Lauren Weiner, were charged with one count of conspiracy with the aid of "Anna." To date, Eric and Zachary are still in jail, with Lauren free on bail. On March 8, 2006, McDavid went on a hunger strike, and his support committee has asked people to call, write and fax the jail to demand vegan meals for him.
- On January 19, 2006, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Eugene, Oregon indicted 11 individuals for criminal conspiracy: Joseph Dibee, Chelsea Gerach, Sarah Harvey, Daniel McGowan, Stanislas Meyerhoff, Josephine Overaker, Jonathan Paul, Rebecca Rubin, Suzanne Savoie, Darren Thurston and Kevin Tubbs.
- On Tuesday February 14, 2006, author and former press officer of the North American Earth Liberation Front Press Office, Craig Rosebraugh, was subpoenaed by a federal grand jury in Eugene, Oregon as part of an ongoing ELF investigation. A press release issued that day stated: "Federal agents approached Rosebraugh as he sat in his vehicle and demanded he roll down his window, presumably to accept the subpoena. He refused, rolled up the windows, locked the doors, and cranked the stereo. After yelling at him, the agents left the subpoena on his windshield. The grand jury subpoenathe eighth Rosebraugh has received in the last nine yearscommands him to appear in Eugene to testify [in] August 2006."
- If things were not repressive enough, Rod Coronado, long time animal liberation activist and Earth First!er, was arrested on February 22, 2006, and charged with the "Distribution of Information Relating to Explosives, Destructive Devices and Weapons of Mass Destruction." His arrest was not provoked by any illegal action, but rather by allegedly showing an audience how to make an arson devicesomething the FBI and "counterterrorist" experts also do in their public lectures. While investigators do not consider him a suspect at all in a fire set to an apartment complex 15 hours prior to his lecture, he can still face up to 25 years in prison and/or $25,000 in fines.
- On February 23, 2006, Nathan Fraser Block, 24, and Joyanna Lynn Zacher, 28, were arrested in Olympia, Washington, and later indicted as part of Operation Backfire. On that same day, anarchist and former political prisoner Matt Lamont was arrested for plotting to target the Big Bear Dam. This charge is completely false, but it is clear that activists can be accused of alluding to wanting or plot illegal actions even if they do not undertake them and have no intention to do so.
- Clearly, one of the most significant events of late and in the history of the animal rights movement was the arrest and conviction of the SHAC7. In May 2004, police rounded up Kevin Kjonaas Lauren Gazzola, Jacob Conroy, Darius Fullmer, John McGee, Andrew Stepanian, and Joshua Harper. The government issued a five count federal indictment that charged each activist, and SHAC USA, the corporation,, with violations of the 1992 Animal Enterprise Protection Act. That act was the first law explicitly designed to protect animal exploitation industries from animal rights protests. On March 2, 2006, the SHAC7 were found guilty of multiple federal felonies for advocating the closure of HLS. While awaiting sentencing (scheduled for June 2006), they are all currently under house arrest, unable to have Internet access in their home and with GPS electronic devices locked to their ankles. Some are even prohibited from speaking to their fellow defendants. Not only is this conviction an appalling miscarriage of justice for the defendants, but it also demonstrates the erosion of free speech protections that is part of a politically-motivated attack on the animal rights movement in particular. This is the first time anyone has ever been tried under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act of 1992 (formerly known as the Animal Enterprise Protection Act), and the convictions set a nightmarish precedent for animal protection campaigners throughout the country. Many industry hacks hope that convictions under the AEPA will clear the way for the government to go after any activist that successfully campaigns against big business, regardless of the legality of their tactics.
Support Political Prisoners!
The indictment of the SHAC7 is just one of many clear indicators that we have entered into yet another chilling period of social repression and the quelling of dissent. It is vital that all activists realize that within the post-9/11 era and Bush Reich, legal protest and constitutionally protected forms of free speech are treated like criminal actions, especially if they pose significant challenges to corporate interests.
One of the most important things we can all be doing is supporting political prisoners and contributing to their defense campaigns, for they need to hear from us and their fate is ours. Andrew Stepanian, a SHAC7 defendant and student-activist majoring in Earth Systems Sciences at Long Island University, commented recently on the importance of the support he and the other defendants received at the start of the trial: "The supporters have kept our spirits up when the government has repeatedly tried to keep them down, and we are very thankful to everyone that took part. The demonstration outside might not have a direct effect inside the courtroom, but it did help us keep our morale and provided an apposing viewpoint about HLS to mainstream media that was present and eager to capture an image of the demonstrators."
What else is needed? "We need financial support for the appeal," says Andy. "We, as a movement, need to fight the Animal Enterprise Protection Act and to make sure that it is not rooted as case law against animal rights activists. Most of all, people need to close down HLS and every other vile institution like that and do so creatively."
Nick Cooney also commented on the importance of jail support in light of his recent arrest:
Jail support is absolutely vital. Within hours after being arrested, people across the country knew I was in jail. My lawyer had been contacted, and friends were getting together money to bail me out. Because I knew all of this would be happening, I didn't have to worry about it while sitting in my jail cell. Having people there to support you when you get taken in is vital, and knowing a good lawyer who understands the political context of our arrests and is on your side is priceless. Ask around through the National Lawyers Guild, ACLU, or Google-searching to find activist-friendly lawyers in your state. Make sure people around you know what to do if you get arrested (call friends, call the jail consistently for updates, gather money, and get a lawyer representing you ASAP).
Andand this cannot be stressed enoughhelp those under political repression by standing up for the same thing they were standing up for. Yes, that's going to mean more good people suffer in the short term, but without it, failure is guaranteed. You have to ask yourself if you really care about what you're fighting for. Are you fighting to win, or just so you can feel like you are doing something good? Have some historical perspective in terms of the amount of struggle needed to win any social justice movement, and don't be bothered by arrests or by government attempts at intimidation. But do be practical and intelligent about having those support systems there for you if and when you get arrested.
As any Earth defender knows, the easiest way to stop a clear-cut is to dismantle the mechanisms of destruction and gather around the trees so they are not vulnerable for being cut down. This is exactly what we need to do for activists now, rather than running for the hills because we are scared of what might happen to us. If you are one of those people, get the hell out of the movement. But, if you want to help, offer as much emotional and financial support as you can.
Never leave a fellow friend, activist, or neighbor to hang for their political beliefs. Do not be ashamed that you support these people or that you are one of them. You have not done anything wrong; it is the corporations that are killing this planet and the government supporting them that should be tried and convicted for crimes of the highest order.
There have been a number of subpoenas and arrests as this article went to print; to learn more about the mentioned cases and new developments, see www.ecoprisoners.org. To learn more about political repression and your rights, contact the ACLU at www.aclu.org.
Visit SHAC7.com and SupportDaniel.org for more information and to lend your support.
Dr. Steven Best and Anthony J. Nocella II are earth and animal liberationists and co-editors of the new release, Igniting A Revolution: Voices in Defense of Mother Earth, published by AK Press.
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Other articles by Dr. Steven Best: