Interview by Comrade Black
How do we shut down a multinational corporation?
500 animals per day die in the labs of Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS), one of the largest contract testing companies in the world. Beagles, primates, rabbits, mice, rats, cats and other species are burned, cut open, or injected with poisons all while alive to ensure products like Viagra and diet pills will make it to the shelves of stores around the world; as well as GMO crops, pesticides, fertilizers and house hold cleaners. A small handful of dedicated activists started a campaign that nearly brought the giant to its knees as over 500 companies quit doing business with HLS, including their insurance company. Activists also managed to get HLS dropped from the New York Stock Exchange, eventually stopping their stocks from being publicly traded altogether.
Jake Conroy was one of the activists involved in Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty campaign (SHAC) in the USA, helping to run the website, and lead demos. For this, Jake was sentenced to 4 years in jail.
PE: How did you get involved with animal activism, and more specially the SHAC campaign?
JAKE: I’ve always had strong feelings for the underdog throughout my life. It didn’t really occur to me until I was 19 that some of the biggest underdogs in the world were non-human animals. I had spent a long time thinking about the issues and reading books and pamphlets I picked up at hardcore/punk shows, and watching videos wherever I could find them (which actually was pretty hard to do in a pre-YouTube era). But I was somewhat on the fence about making that leap to get involved.
I was living in Seattle at the time, walking downtown to school, when I passed some folks protesting against the circus as they paraded the elephants for miles through the city. I passed them and didn’t say a word but it sat heavily in my mind that I should. So I turned around and walked back and asked what they were doing and who they were and how I could get in touch with them. They simply replied, “We’re in the Yellow Pages”. Sure enough, under Animal Rights, there was one listing – The Northwest Animal Rights Network. I called the number and listened to the info about the upcoming circus protests, and I went down that weekend by myself to join in.
The next 5 years I would participate in civil disobediences, run successful campaigns to close fur salons, help transform Seattle into one of the most animal-friendly cities in the country, and be arrested (with my current co-defendant Josh Harper) for engaging in the first whale hunt sabotage in US coastal waters by piloting a boat between whales and hunters.
In 2001 I had been working locally on the anti-HLS campaign in the Seattle area, when I got a call from a friend asking if I wanted to move out east for a few months to help start the office for this group, Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty USA. I had nothing else to do, so I packed up my belongings, put them in storage, and headed out to Philadelphia. I became so excited and inspired by our first 3 months that I never went back. I would spend the next 5 years helping run one of the most exciting campaigns of my life.
PE: What can people learn from SHAC, and from the repression you faced?
JAKE: I think the most important thing people can learn is that their activism needs to be strategic, smart, and creative, while being thoughtful, careful, and calculated. We shouldn’t rush in head first because that’s the way it’s always been done; rather prepare for all outcomes, be ready to accept them, and not fear them. We need to realize that we are under a microscope, so our actions need to be significant and have a focus on duration and long term strategy.
PE: What do you think made SHAC so successful?
JAKE: Bobby Seale, the co-founder of the Black Panther Party, once said that in order to be successful you have to capture the imagination of the people, and the anti-Huntingdon Life Sciences campaign and SHAC USA did just that. It began in North America at a time when national welfare organizations started to dangle paychecks in front of grassroots organizers, when they began shifting the debate away from liberation to welfarism, and when they made you feel like you were doing your part by voting every couple of years and sending in your donations to cover their expanding paychecks. They were disenfranchising the animal rights movement and getting folks to fall into line. But deep inside, we all wanted more.
SHAC USA sprang into action quickly and furiously. It said loudly and proudly that we weren’t going to sit back and accept bigger cages, and we were going to hold everyone and anyone accountable for their actions and support of animal cruelty, no matter when or where. We were happy to push the envelope and support radical ideas and tactics when others wouldn’t. We believed in people power, horizontal and autonomous organizing, and supporting and using every tool in the toolbox to enact change. Within months, we managed to gain victories as an all-volunteer organization of 4 where huge national organizations couldn’t. We captured the hearts and minds of activist communities and the general public, and we were off and running, bulldozing anyone that got in our way.
Full page ad that appeared in New York Times during the time of the SHAC 7 trial and amendments to the AETA was being discussed in congress
PE: SHAC centers on vivisection, specifically contract testing for consumer products like viagra and diet pills. Why focus on vivisection rather than fur, circuses, or the horrors of the pet industries, food/meat, or other areas of animal exploitation?
JAKE: There are so many atrocities perpetrated against the earth, and the animals, both human and non-human, that live on it. It’s very easy to fall into a pattern of trying to save the entire planet all at once. But we need to be strategic about our campaigns and smart about how we go about them. There had been a campaign against HLS since the late 80’s, with some amazing actions, but it just wasn’t getting the job done. But the late 90s saw a perfect storm of sorts in England. Activists had closed Consort Beagle Breeder, Hillgrove Cat Farm, Regal Rabbits and they were closing in on Shamrock Primate Farm and Newchurch Guinea Pig Farm. Energy was extremely high and victories were coming in swiftly. Meanwhile, Huntingdon had two undercover investigations released against them in the UK and the US, and it had almost bankrupt them. They were a huge target, teetering on the brink of foreclosure, and they needed a firm kick to push them over the edge. It would be a gamble, but it was part of a larger overall campaign strategy that was proving to be successful. HLS is the third largest contract research organization in the world and they were on the brink of being brought to their knees by grassroots activists. The time was just right.
PE: Do you still think that the SHAC Campaign can succeed at this point? What is the relevance of the campaign today?
JAKE: Martin Luther King Jr said that the arc of the universe is long and bends towards justice. And to add a footnote by Becky Tarbotton, “sometimes we don’t see it bend, sometimes it feels like it flattening out. And other times we can see that arc perceptively bending towards justice.” We didn’t close down Huntingdon Life Sciences according to our timeline, but I still believe the campaign can and will be successful. It’s suffered some major blows to it’s infrastructure, but like all good things, it keeps moving forward, it continues to bend towards justice. People are still active all over the world in the quest to shut it down for good and HLS is still financially hemorrhaging.
I think the relevance of the campaign is that it represents the tenacity, passion, and drive we as a global movement has to see justice served, no matter how long that might take. The tactics the SHAC campaign used were innovative and powerful, and they continue to be replicated by a broad spectrum of movements around the world to fight back. That alone is a testament to the relevance of the campaign and how successful it was and continues to be, regardless of the outcome of our explicit goals.
PE: How can activists today become more effective?
JAKE: Effectiveness and success is going to come by studying our collective histories, working hard and being creative today, while keeping long term future strategies in mind.
As activists today we have a unique opportunity to still talk to and learn from some of the greatest revolutionaries of decades past. These folks are still involved decades later and they want to sit with you, to have you learn from their mistakes, and understand their successes. We need to take advantage of these opportunities any chance we get before it’s too late.
We need to recognize that we are living in one of the most oppressive times to be an activist. Our targets wield more power than ever before and are getting away with using every tool in the toolbox to silence and imprison us. We need to take their lead and fight back in kind. We as activists need to realize that perhaps our old ways and tactics aren’t going to work anymore and we need to start thinking outside the box; to be more creative and look for other ways around the blockades before us in order to reach our desired goal.
Finally, we need to be smart. We can no longer rush in head down, into brick walls. We need to pick our heads up and look forward and see how we can strategically plan not just for this year but the next generation. We need to look deeper and with more thoughtfulness into how we are making change and how we can make it lasting.
PE: Are you still involved with animal activism now that you are out of prison?
JAKE: I’m involved with animal activism as much as I can be. I am currently finishing my third year of probation (out of 3), which puts restrictive conditions on you and your actions. Your whereabouts, employment status and financial records are all monitored by the federal government. I have a list of 30 or so rules, some very specific, some very broad, that I am required to live by. If I violate any of these rules, the probation office has the right to yank me off of probation and put me back in prison. So while they can be lax about certain things, getting in trouble doing animal activism is a sure way to end back in prison.
However, I still do as much animal activism, prisoner support, and outreach that I can. I am also employed by a non-profit environmental organization that uses non-violent direct action and pressure campaigns against global corporate targets to affect change. In a sense it’s much like SHAC, minus the radical aggressiveness that landed us in prison.
PE: If we truly want to be effective in our activism, it seems like in today’s atmosphere we should get prepared for the very real possibility of prison. Do you have any advice on how to prepare or was there anything that helped you get trough it?
JAKE: While I think activists today need to be very aware of the repression going on around the globe and learn how they can fight back, I wouldn’t say that prison is a very real possibility for a large majority of us. In the grand scheme of things, very few of us have actually been imprisoned for the amount of actions and campaigns that have been going on. Unfortunately, while the number of folks in prison right now is rising, it doesn’t mean that we all are going to end up there some day.
The SHAC7 case was a perfect example of that. Thousands of people in North America alone participated in the campaign in their own way and it came down to a half dozen of us in court. The odds are in your favor.
If you are in the small minority of people facing prison time, I would highly suggest turning to those who have been or are currently incarcerated, for advice and counsel. Prison is a place like no other; nothing can possibly compare to it. It’s a place filled with bizarre rules and expectations and nothing can really prepare you for it outside of the experience of others. I spent a lot of time leading up to my incarceration writing friends that were serving time as political prisoners, asking them every thing I could possibly think of. We would write tomes back and forth. But ultimately nothing can fully prepare you for the experience.
Ultimately, prison is a dark and lonely and depressing place. And one of the few things that can put a smile on an inmate’s face is a letter. It is what makes the experience survivable. So I would encourage everyone to look through the lists of political prisoners and find a couple that resonate with you, and write them. It doesn’t have to be a lengthy diatribe on your political beliefs (its better that it’s not), rather, write them about your day, the last back packing trip you took, the last meal you made. Send a photo or a postcard. Anything will brighten their day. Take the time to foster a relationship with them and help them get through their experience. What may seem like an insignificant 20 minutes to you writing a letter, it can be a total life saver when on the receiving end while in prison.
PE: How much dose having a terrorist enhancement effect your life? And how do you feel about being considered a terrorist in the eyes of the government?
JAKE: Just to be clear, none of the SHAC 7 received a terrorist enhancement during sentencing. We were, however, classified by the Bureau of Prisons as domestic terrorists. This meant that during our stay in prison and our time on probation (and I’m sure afterwards), that label followed us around wherever we went. In prison, for me, that meant all of my phone calls were monitored and recorded, all of my incoming and outgoing mail was opened, read, and photocopied if they desired, and my ability to have my friends come visit me was drastically reduced. It also meant that I was put onto a ‘high visibility inmate’ watch list inside of the prison. I was one of 10 to 15 inmates that the administration said posed the biggest security threat to the institution, in a population of around 1300 inmates incarcerated for murder, rape, bank robbery, high-level gang activity, etc..
PE: Could you please recap what the charges against you were, and what you were accused of doing?
JAKE: Kevin Kjonaas, Lauren Gazolla and I were found guilty of 6 charges based on our direct involvement and so-called “leadership” roles with SHAC USA. They were one count of conspiracy to violate the 1934 Telecommunications Harrassment Act, one count of conspiracy to violate the Animal Enterprise Protection Act (now called the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act), one count of conspiring to commit interstate stalking, and 3 counts of interstate stalking.
Essentially we were found guilty of running a webpage that advertised and editorialized events, actions, and strategy; that published write-ups of those events and actions after the fact (much like an online newspaper); that shared ideas, and supported the thinking of controversial ideologies. By doing all of this online, we crossed state lines to enter into a conspiracy with essentially anyone who had ever used the internet. By simply publishing and editorializing ideas and actions, we were encouraging anyone who accessed our webpage to go out and do the same things.
It was a far-fetched (yet successful) attempt at criminalizing controversial, yet legal, forms of demonstrations, supporting radical and controversial ideologies like non-violent direct action, and the sharing of ideas.
PE: Can you talk about the role music & subcultures can play in Animal Liberation and other activism?
JAKE: Subcultures and music has played a very influential role in grassroots and radical movements. The first time I was introduced to the idea of black power and the Black Panther Movement was after buying the album Fight The Power by Public Enemy when I was in junior high. As a white, suburban kid growing up in New England, those radical ideas didn’t make it into our classrooms. Soon after I would be introduced to hardcore and punk rock, which would open the doors to a do-it-yourself subculture, the straightedge philosophy, and veganism. Bands, ‘zines, and literature acquired at record stores and shows filled my imagination and passion with big ideas about grassroots organizing and direct action; the idea that we didn’t need large organizations and governments to enact the change we wanted to see in the world. That change was something we could bring about on our own and on our own terms. This idea wasn’t just mine – this self-empowerment and introduction to direct action through music communities was shared by 5 of the 6 individuals in the SHAC7 case, and direct action legends like Rod Coronado and Keith Mann. It introduced a whole generation of young people in the mid 90’s to veganism, activism, and direct action, that would eventually shape the entire animal rights movement.
Jake Conroy is available to speak at public events and will be speaking at Camas Books in Victoria BC (Via skype) Feb 16. To contact Jake about speaking in your community go to http://aidandabet.org/roster/from-activist-to-terrorist/
To learn about the ongoing campaign to shut down HLS today check out the SHAC website (includes videos, lists of companies doing business with HLS, and other campaign materials)
To learn more about the repression of activism and the SHAC 7