On Violence, Liberation, and the ALF

“The question the animal rights movement should ask itself is: What course of action would we justify and engage in if it was our own mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and children in the torture chambers and not nameless unfamiliar animals? And also: Is the ALF justifiable in its own moderate choice of tactics? Once we answer these questions honestly we might better appreciate that in over 19 years of operation in the US, the ALF has yet to cause physical injury or loss of life in a campaign that has achieved liberty for tens of thousands of the voiceless victims of humanity’s war against the animal nations. Meanwhile, corporate, government, military and private animal abusers remain committed to their own code of real violence and terror, as evidenced by their contemptuous disregard for all other life on earth” ~Rod Coronodo, from the article Direct Action Speaks Louder than Words

“Every time you walk past a dog on a chain, the radical feminist or ALF activist might remind you, you are making the political choice to allow that animal to spend his or her days in lonely anguish.” ~Pattrice Jones, from the article Mothers with Monkeywrenches: Feminist Imperatives and the ALF

Genocide and fishing vessels, torture and vivisection, rape and factory farms, murder and slaughterhouses. When I think of violence, all this and more clouds my mind simultaneously. And somewhere, in the periphery of the mental montage that is my conception of violence, is the violent activist. This would be the anti-abortion zealot with a handgun. Or the Weather Underground member with a strategically placed pipe bomb. However, as I read Satya’s series, Violence and Activism, from March and April of 2004, I realized that the violent animal activist was absent from my definition of violence.

When, if ever, is animal activism violent? Is it violent for a group of masked, sign-waving activists to holler incriminatingly on the front lawn of a vivisector’s home? Is it violent for the liberators of caged animals to vandalize the lab and render useless the tools of torture?

In a political climate that pairs ‘animal activist’ hand in hand with ‘terrorist,’ the controversy over direct action, animal liberation, and underground activism is as significant as ever. While reading Satya’s collection of articles, many of which directly advocated for nonviolence, I also looked at writings on the movement’s most notorious component: the Animal Liberation Front (ALF). In 2004 Steven Best and Anthony J. Nocella published an anthology entitled Terrorists or Freedom Fighters?: Reflections on the Liberation of Animals. The result is a fascinating insight into the history, rationale, motivation, perception, and tactics of this underground movement.

Best summarizes the unique composition of the ALF in his introduction: “Given the decentralized and anonymous nature of ALF actions, the ALF in principle is not about authority, ego, heroism, machismo, or martyrdom; rather, it is about overcoming hierarchy, patriarchy, passivity, and politics as usual so that creative individuals can dedicate themselves unselfishly to the cause of animal liberation” (Best, 24).

It is crucial to emphasize that, in the entire history of the ALF, not a single human or nonhuman animal life has been taken. Despite the autonomy of each ALF cell, there is a list of overarching guidelines. This short list includes rules for taking “all necessary precautions” against harm. The primary purpose is, as explained in the ALF Primer, “to liberate animals from places of abuse … and place them in good homes where they may live out their natural lives, free from suffering,” “to inflict economic damage to those who profit from the misery and exploitation of animals,” and “to reveal the horror and atrocities committed against animals behind locked doors.” The ALF is a logical response to an industry that profits from the perpetuation of violence against nonhumans. When decades of begging the public to empathize has yet to halt the reality of widespread animal exploitation, ALF activists bypass the painstaking route of public conversion and literally liberate the animals.

The media and pro-vivisection groups such as the Foundation for Biomedical Research like to depict the ALF as angry, arrogant young men in baklavas wielding crowbars. This unfortunate image is one that Pattrice Jones, in her essay, recommends replacing. She proposes giving a “feminine face’ to the ALF. “What happens,” asks Jones, “when you change that mental image” of “a black-clad young man” to “a young woman or a gray-haired grandmother?” (Jones, 149). As Jones explains, the ALF is in fact “consistent with both ecofeminism and anarcha-feminism” as well as “with radical feminism in general” (Jones, 144). This is one of many positive angles from which to understand and support the ALF that few have bothered to explore or embrace.

Rather than focus on the laudatory aspects of the ALF, some prominent figures and organizations in the movement have chosen to distance themselves from ALF actions rather than be tainted by controversy. As Karen Dawn pointed out, in 2003 the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) withdrew from the Animal Rights Conference. The organization’s excuse was that, by associating themselves with “the rhetoric of Rod Coronado and Stop Huntington Animal Cruelty (SHAC)’s Kevin Jonas” they “would damage HSUS’s mainstream image (which translates into millions of much needed mainstream dollars in donations) and subvert HSUS’s standing in the legislative arena” (Dawn, 214).

Bruce G. Friedrich offered an intriguing counter-perspective to the choice of many organizations to disassociate from the ALF and other, aboveground radical groups such as SHAC. He argues that ALF actions are “useful to the movement” in that “they shift the debate” by making “the rest of the movement respectable” (Friedrich, 257). As he explains, “those who work on the radical fringe push that fringe outward and make others, formerly radical from society’s vantage, seem far more mainstream. And that, of course, is our goal: to alert society to the fact that animal liberation is every bit as reasonable, as a movement and philosophy, as was the abolition of slavery and suffrage for women” (Friedrich, 257).

Indeed, the tactics employed by the ALF are not so very alien or radical when put in the context of the history of social justice movements. As Kevin Jonas, who is currently serving a six year prison sentence for his involvement with SHAC, wrote for Satya (almost two years before he was convicted as a terrorist), “Many people do support liberations, property destruction, violence, forms of terrorism, and even murder” (Jonas, 18). They have “supported such violent tactics in the crushing of the Third Reich, the establishment of fair labor practices, and … to kill Osama bin Laden. Winning animal rights is what is so threatening and ‘terrorizing’ – not the way in which is fought – for the prospect of such principles being accepted would undermine a great many cultural, economic, and societal institutions which depend on animal oppression for their survival” (Jonas, 18).

Yet even the most radical activism on behalf of animals becomes tame in comparison to the violence perpetrated every second by animal exploiters worldwide. As Best wrote, “For every scratch an activist might inflict on an animal exploiter, a sea of blood flows from the bodies of animals; consequently, it is the height of perversity to brand activists rather than animal exploitation industries as the ethical misfits” (Best, 334). In this light, the cultural and societal reactions to ALF actions are irrelevant beside the countless lives that liberation tactics has and continues to save.

Jones asked her readers, “Who do you hope will be around if you are ever confined in a cage or about to be forcibly impregnated?” (Jones, 145). It’s a question worth considering when we get caught up in arguments over the most appropriate tactics. You can define them as violent, nonviolent, or by some category of your own invention, but in the end all that truly matters is that the ALF is opening cage doors and liberating lives.


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