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February 2007
Can’t a Guy Destroy a Slaughterhouse Without Being Called a “Terrorist”?
By Mark Hawthorne


Those who, while they disapprove of the character and measures of a government, yield to it their allegiance and support are undoubtedly its most conscientious supporters, and so frequently the most serious obstacles to reform.—Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience

That sound you hear is the murmur of activists across the country cautiously lamenting yet another obstruction in the struggle to free animals from exploitation. In November, President Bush signed into law a lugubrious bit of legislation called the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA), which makes engaging in campaigns that hurt corporate profits or cause property damage a very serious crime. Swell. Now I suppose I’ll have to wear a disguise whenever I commit acts of civil disobedience.

I once read a book or more likely saw a filmstrip in junior high about some American patriots who did this some years ago—to enormous success and acclaim, as I recall. One night these “Sons of Liberty,” masquerading as Mohawks to conceal their identities, snuck onto British cargo ships anchored in Boston Harbor, where they proceeded to fling 342 crates of East India Company tea, valued at £10,000, into the water. Sounds like economic damage and destruction of property to me. True, things were much different in 1773. For one thing, Samuel Adams’ ale was still brewed in Boston. And for another, citizens did not enjoy rights under the U.S. Constitution—because it hadn’t been created yet.

No, it took a stunt like the Boston Tea Party—an act against both a government and the largest corporation of its day—to rid ourselves of the yoke of tyranny and form a country in which civil liberties are guaranteed. Finally, citizens could speak out against injustices; indeed, the very first amendment to the Constitution declared that Congress shall make no law prohibiting the freedom of speech or the right of the people to peaceably assemble. Or so we thought. Back then it was a “party,” today it could mean 18 months in prison.

One needn’t look back as far as the 18th century to find activists effectively using the power of economic interest to bring about social reform. Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and César Chávez all used boycotts to hurt profits, improve civil rights and labor conditions, or achieve a political objective. Paul McCartney has an ongoing boycott against China, refusing to perform there after he saw an undercover video taken in a Chinese fur market. Even President Jimmy Carter recognized how powerful this tactic could be, ordering a boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. (Ha! We certainly showed them!)

But this new law won’t simply constrain the right to boycott. It could hinder all manner of civil disobedience, from peaceful sit-ins and vegan outreach to rescues and minor property damage. C’mon now, can’t someone have a website exposing the animal testing industry or destroy a slaughterhouse anymore without being slapped with a “terrorist” label? (I’m kidding, of course. I know anti-animal research websites are very, very wrong.)

Ironically, in the wake of tragic attacks killing thousands of people in the U.S., the word “terrorist” has lost its impact here. It used to mean something truly unthinkable: suicide bombers, fanatics blowing up planes or armed radicals seeking revenge. If we’re going to refer to someone handing out vegan literature as a terrorist, then what do we call someone who blows himself up inside a crowded public space? Our world has indeed become warped when we can equate those committing pain and slaughter with those trying to prevent pain and slaughter. I can think of nothing more senseless (though possible exceptions could be the Electoral College and the song “Let’s Have a Patrick Swayze Christmas”).

Of course, it didn’t take a psychic to see this act was likely going to pass the House vote and get the President’s signature. If the fact that it passed through the Senate like whole-grain cereal through the lower colon wasn’t enough of a barometer, check out journalist Will Potter’s website, Last May, Will testified before a subcommittee on crime, terrorism and Homeland Security, telling them that the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act was nothing more than a witch hunt. Perhaps no one has written more about the AETA than Will, and his website is filled with his articles and blogs. But before the bill passed through the House, hardly a soul posted a comment to add a commiserating voice objecting to the legislative juggernaut threatening our ability to speak for animals. When I pointed this out, Will responded: “What’s interesting is that hits to the website keep increasing, but comments haven’t: I think it’s an indication of how reluctant people are to be associated with the issue, even through something as simple as a comment.”

Say it ain’t so, people.

If compassionate activists can’t unite in solidarity over the issue of animal oppression, I seriously fear the democratic process in this country has been compromised, to say nothing of the animal rights movement.

It remains to be seen how chilling the effect of the AETA will be. The new law certainly will not prevent underground activists from liberating animals and damaging property, but will radical activism become the only public face of animal advocacy? What will happen to the ag agitators, the circus leafleters, the rodeo demonstrators, the animal rights webmasters, the lab protesters and all the other social liberators? I’m guessing, or perhaps just hoping, there will remain a group of committed activists who will not be deterred by this legislation, even if standing up to animal oppressors requires a little creative thinking.

Anyone know where I can find a good Mohawk disguise?

Mark Hawthorne is a California-based activist and a contributing writer for Satya.





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