Making the Neighbors Angry

“I hear activists being termed ‘extremists’ and ‘terrorists,’ surely it’s extreme to stitch up the eyelids of a kitten in a research laboratory, it’s extreme to transplant the head of one monkey onto another, it’s extreme to tear a young calf from his mother’s side to steal her milk and condemn him to a short life in a veal crate, it’s extreme to castrate a young piglet without anesthetic merely to argue that the meat will taste better when he’s murdered. Surely that is true extremism, real terrorism against the weak and innocent. I believe that those who seek to end atrocities of that nature are only guilty of one thing, and that’s compassion.” ~Robin Webb, responding in September 1991 to the question of justifying the ALF’s activities

Consider the vivisector who makes a cushy living off torturing animals in laboratories for frivolous research. Thousands of caged animals suffer and die at his hands. Convincing him to cease his practices would save countless lives. Yet appealing to his empathy is futile. Picketing the lab yields no results, the university doesn’t respond positively to your letters, and the animal welfare laws passed on a national level are not enforced. Short of an illegal action, what can you do?

One option is a home demo. Targeting individual animal exploiters through home demonstrations is a tactic that was brought into the discussion more than once at the conference. This aboveground strategy takes activists directly to the front lawns of the exploiter. It typically involves educating the neighbors and encouraging media attention. Most importantly, it ensures that the vivisector is not allowed to leave work behind him. His family, his neighbors, they all feel the repercussions of his choice. To spare everyone the trouble, all he has to do is make the decision to stop the cruelty.

Homes demos are, unsurprisingly, not endorsed by everyone in the movement. Indeed, many adamantly oppose this approach. Critics cite alienation of the community, negative media attention, damage to the cause’s reputation, and the employment of harassment and intimidation.

Those who speak in favor of home demos tend to be those who support direct action tactics. This was true of the interviews that I read this week with three of U.K.’s most publicly radical animal activists. It was in a booklet entitled Keep Fighting: Three Interviews with Britain’s Animal Liberation Front Press Officers. Clearly this was reading material produced on a budget. The photocopied, unnumbered pages fade into the margins. I cringed with every ‘you’re’ mistyped as ‘your.’ Yet despite it’s unimpressive appearance, the text is quite interesting. It is the transcript of interviews conducted in 1991 with Ronnie Lee, Robin Lane, and Robin Webb. As they explained to the interviewer, the three former ALF Press Officers were unable, for legal reasons, to discuss illegal activity in a way that could be interpreted as promotion. So, when asked about effective campaigning and “the way forward for the animal rights movement,” all three advocated home demos.

Ronnie Lee, the founder of the ALF, who has completed more than one prison sentence, admitted that, “marches and demonstrations outside of laboratories and other animal abuse establishments haven’t been very effective.” While discussing “winnable” campaigns, he suggested that, “a successful local campaign could be mounted … against vivisection.” He explains: “If you campaign against vivisection at a particular establishment using a type of campaign that puts attention on individual vivisectors, like harassing them personally, going outside their homes and disrupting their personal life, then you are going to stop those people, eventually you are going to stop those vivisectors from vivisecting because they just won’t be able to take the pressure anymore. You are going to have to target a lot of individual vivisectors before you close the lab, but all the time you are achieving these small victories of vivisectors who stop doing it, you are cutting down the number of vivisectors, you’re making it very uncomfortable for anyone to vivisect in that place.”

Likewise, Robin Webb saw home demos as an extremely effective approach: “To really stop the abuse – apart from unlawful direct action which the Animal Liberation Front carry out – find out who the animal abusers are, for example, vivisectors, go and demonstrate outside of their houses, leaflet their neighbors, make it clear to their local community how they make their money, that their mortgage repayments are paid with blood-stained money. They will then become outcasts in their own community. It will encourage them to find another way of earning a living. If the animals can’t get away from their exploitation, if the animals are imprisoned 24 hours a day, why should the abusers go home, put their feet up, and watch television?”

In response to the argument “that you shouldn’t make the partners and children of the family pay,” Webb was unwavering. “It is not the responsibility of the campaigners, it’s the responsibility of the animal abuser. All they have to do is stop what they are doing, and their family won’t be involved in any unpleasantness anymore. It’s all the responsibility of the animal abusers. If they stop what they’re doing, then any demonstrations and picketing would stop.”

I found it highly noteworthy that these three dedicated activists, when unable to suggest ALF actions, chose to encourage this particular tactic. Does this suggest that demonstrating in neighborhoods is the next best thing to breaking into laboratories? Not necessarily.

These interviews, as I kept reminding myself, occurred sixteen years ago. I wonder if these three still espouse the same perspective. I am especially curious as to whether the optimism expressed in this booklet has endured such a lengthy passage of time with so little progress.

Recently Arkangel (arkangelweb.org), originally a magazine co-founded by Robin Lane to report on progress in the movement, posted an article on the rise of vivisection in the U.K. “Latest Government figures for 2006 on animal research,” reads the article, “show a rise to 3.01 million of scientific procedures on animals in the UK, up 115,800 on 2005 or just under 10,000 a month. In addition the report showed that 133,800 more animals were used in experiments, representing a 5% increase on the previous year.”

What does this say about the effectiveness of the movement? Would the situation be even worse if animal activists had not worked so tirelessly? Would the situation be better if activists had done more? If only I could ask Lee, Lane, and Webb for their opinion. Whatever their answers might be, to me these statistics mean only that this immense struggle for the lives of animals remains as urgent as ever.

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