How Afraid They Really Are: Resisting State Repression of Environmental and Animal Rights Activists

On October 30, 2013, I was arrested outside of Miami with eight others at a protest put on by the grassroots animal rights group Smash HLS. Though this was the first time I had attended a Smash HLS protest, I had been following their actions long before I came to Florida. They formed to protest Huntingdon Life Sciences, or HLS, one of the largest animal testing companies on the planet. HLS was made famous, and bankrupted, by Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC), an international grassroots group that used above–ground tactics, including home demonstrations, mass call–ins and email protests, to put pressure on HLS as well as anyone working with the company. Now Smash HLS uses similar tactics to target companies in South Florida, and they have had impressive victories, including stopping five airlines from transporting primates for animal testing, and recently helping to close down a lab owned by animal testing supplier Primate Products.

The October 30 protest was at a facility owned by a company that breeds and transports primates for animal testing and entertainment. When I arrived the protest seemed to be pretty uneventful—just a dozen or so people standing around holding signs. But that all changed when a van from inside the facility drove up to the gate where I was standing and drove the vehicle directly into the crowd of protesters. It was my impression that one of my friends in the crowd had been hit and was in danger of being run over by the vehicle. I was screaming at the van to stop, but it did not—rather, it swerved back and forth, nearly hitting, and apparently aiming for, other protesters. Finally, about a quarter mile later, the van stopped. Suddenly I was surrounded on all sides by unmarked cars and plain–clothes cops—Florida Department of Law Enforcement and Department of Homeland Security—aiming their hostility and weapons at me and the other protesters.

The officers bragged that they had been hiding and watching us, and had even videotaped the entire encounter. I don’t know whether this is true—I tend not to put much faith in the statements of cops. But, if I’m to believe what they shouted at me while I was being slammed to the ground, kneed in the back and handcuffed, then it would appear as if they secretly observed us in a very dangerous situation and did nothing to intervene. I’ve since found out that one of the men in the van was an undercover police officer, yet he was laughing and flipping us off as they endangered our lives. The police clearly escalated the event with purpose, instructing the company employee driving the van to put our lives at risk in hopes of getting a reaction out of us. The activists involved received charges ranging from disorderly conduct to assault. The police allege that the nine of us “attacked” the vehicle, and the prosecution claims we caused $4,600 in damage. While we were arrested, the driver of the van was allowed to go without question, and is facing no charges.

This is not an isolated incident, or an extreme case, but part of a pattern of growing federal and state repression of animal rights and environmental activists in this country. The government is hell–bent on squashing the people’s mounting concerns over rampant environmental destruction and animal exploitation, as well as the groups and individuals willing to fight back against it, regardless of how peaceful and legal the activities of such activists are. Hacker Jeremy Hammond was just sentenced to 10 years for leaking documents from the intelligence firm Stratfor, which gathers intelligence on activists and uses it to stop their free speech and civil disobedience activities. Internal documents from TransCanada concerning the activists fighting the Keystone XL pipeline, as well as the recent Snowden leak regarding NSA spying and PRISM, demonstrate that more than ever the government and corporations are working hand–in–hand to target and eliminate activists, while law enforcement officers protect the illegal and destructive practices of those corporations.

This relationship between law enforcement and corporations was demonstrated again four days before my arrest, when a group of activists from the Global Justice Ecology Project (GJEP) and Everglades Earth First! (EEF!) were giving presentations on the dangers of genetically engineered (GE) trees in Florida, for which they were banned from the University of Florida. They were not protesting, nor were they involved in any civil disobedience activities; they were simply informing those who wish to listen about this practice taking place in our own backyards, and the questionable science behind it.

This didn’t stop the state from intervening when the group arrived at the University of Florida on October 26, where they were scheduled to give a presentation. The University of Florida has received millions of dollars in grants from the government to conduct research into GE trees, and thus has a strong interest in silencing all opposition to such research. At the UF campus, presenters and others with them were met by a group of police who told them that the presentation had been canceled, threatened the presenters with arrests if they did not leave the property, and banned all the individuals in the group from UF campus for three years.

Four days later, the day of the Smash HLS protest, the GE Tree Roadshow was slated to give a presentation to students at Palm Beach State College in Boca Raton, Florida. That morning, Campus Provost Dr. Bernadette M. Russel received a phone call from the FBI warning her about the presentation and claiming that the presenters were known to be “disruptive.” Russel told the student who organized the event that she must get permission before inviting the presenters or their groups to the campus again, and posted a security guard outside the room during the presentation.

The police, FBI, and universities were trying to silence an educational roadshow practicing free speech activity at universities to which they were personally invited by students and professors. But that’s the pattern that the government is making very clear. They do not target groups or individuals because of what they do, but rather because of who they know and what they believe. The GE Tree Roadshow was targeted because they were spreading a message that runs counter to the researchers, corporations, universities and government agencies that stand to profit from genetic engineering. They simply do not want the public to hear both sides of the story.

I was attending that day’s Smash HLS demonstration in part so I could pass out fliers about Tyler Lang and Kevin Olliff, two animal rights activists from Los Angeles who were being held in Woodford County Jail in rural Illinois and charged with “possession of burglary tools.” The fliers encouraged people to spread the word about their mistreatment at the hands of the jail, which was not allowing them access to books, a move which Kevin had been protesting with a hunger strike for over a week. Police at the Smash HLS protest arrested me before I was able to pass out the fliers. When my bag was finally returned, the stack of fliers had been removed and replaced with a pair of latex gloves. Thankfully, the book ban at Woodford County Jail was finally lifted while I was being held in Miami–Dade County jail, and Kevin was able to end his hunger strike. On November 6, Tyler was offered a plea deal, and is now free. Kevin is still inside, as a plea deal of two years in prison was rejected by the judge.

The absurdity of complaining about my treatment at the hands of the police while attempting to pass out fliers for Kevin and Tyler never escaped me. While the bail for all nine of us arrested at the Smash HLS event totaled over $31,000, Tyler alone was slapped with a $100,000 bail, and Kevin’s was $200,000. The bails seem to be a reaction not to what Kevin and Tyler did—especially since every one of the “burglary tools” allegedly in their possession is legal to possess—but to who they know and what they believe.

This is made evident not just by the high bails, or by their inhumane treatment in the jail once it was discovered that they were animal rights activists (which included a refusal to provide medical consultations or adequate food, a removal of their access to email, the ban on books, and for Kevin, threats of forced feeding), but also by the FBI’s involvement in the case. Even though neither Tyler nor Kevin are charged with doing anything that had to do with their animal rights activities, it was reported on October 22 that the FBI has been questioning friends of Kevin and Tyler in Los Angeles, and even threatening some of these friends with prosecution for perjury. Clearly the state’s goal is not simply to punish Kevin and Tyler for supposedly breaking a law, but to fracture and intimidate activist communities in general.

All of the incidents I’ve mentioned occurred before anyone was convicted of a crime. The jail time, fines, interrogations and unjust treatment have taken place without anyone being found guilty of anything. And with good reason. The government knows that it is often very much full of shit. One of the activists arrested with me at the Smash HLS protest had already been arrested four times while demonstrating with the group, and charged with multiple crimes in most of the arrests, but in each case the charges were dropped. He has never been found guilty. Yet he has served jail time, been mistreated and threatened, and had to pay fines for bail as well as time spent in custody. Law enforcement does all it can to damage activist communities while it still has the upper hand—before the trial process, while it can punish without evidence. And so we spend our time and our few resources raising money to protect people that, for all we know, will soon be found innocent.

Of course, this doesn’t stop us. Tyler attended an anti–vivisection protest the day after he got back home to LA, and has been organizing non–stop since. “When I found out that I was going to be released I knew then and there that I had to get back to activism, I had to get back to speaking out for animals as soon as possible. I knew that if I didn’t I would be giving in to the state’s attempts to silence dissent and effectively allowing them to win. Because state repression only works when we let it, and they know that, when we refuse to hide in our houses because we don’t want to become their next victim, when we reject the fear they try and put in our hearts we show the state and the animal industries that they protect that our movement is strong and ready to do what it takes to protect the natural world and the animals that we share it with. To me, after I was released from jail, I could not think of anything more important than that.”

On November 1, the day that I got out of jail, I attended the last GE Tree Roadshow presentation in Florida. It was very good, and not quite what I would call disruptive. There was a slide show, a few short videos, zines passed out, and an engaging discussion afterward. Audience members were shocked when they were told that this presentation had been banned at UF. Keith Brunner from GJEP, one of the presenters in the GE Tree Roadshow, indicated that all this could be a sign that activists are making a real impact. “State surveillance and repression of resistance movements is nothing new, and I believe we can expect to see more of it as our movements against oppression and domination grow stronger and more effective.”

It isn’t anything new, just another incident. The Green Scare wasn’t very long ago. Jerry Koch is still incarcerated in New York in a Grand Jury investigation for refusing to talk about who he knows and what he believes. What happened at the Smash HLS protest is barely a blip on the radar. Despite how much I thought I knew about the subject, this was a reality check for me personally. No matter how safe and responsible I am myself, I cannot predict or control what the government will do when they feel their agenda is being threatened. But like Tyler said, fear tactics only work on us when we let them. Even though we’re the ones getting locked up, it’s the government and corporations that are showing how afraid they truly are.