2 strategies, same goal in activism for animals

Chicago Tribune/February 16, 2003
By Jon Yates

Robin Webb stood in back of a cramped Logan Square storefront last week, his face flush and his fists clenched as he barked out orders to an attentive army.

Break windows, he implored the overflow crowd. Burn cars, stage protests, clog door locks with Super Glue.

"It is a war," said the 59-year-old British spokesman for the Animal Liberation Front, now almost shouting. "It is an all-out bloody war in which all of the victims have been on one side so far."

Webb likens ALF's fight to protect animals to the abolitionists' fight to end slavery. The FBI calls ALF a domestic terrorist group, and many animal welfare groups agree.

"Every freedom fighter has been deemed a terrorist," said Webb, who was in Chicago to speak at the Autonomous Zone, 2129 N. Milwaukee Ave., a social gathering spot that caters to activists. His presentation drew more than 50 people.

"I don't think the great-great-grandchildren of these activists will say `Why did you break the law in pursuit of this goal,'" he said later. "I think they'll say `Why didn't you do more?'"

The ALF, which has no leadership, no membership list and almost no discernible structure, has claimed responsibility for vandalism Feb. 2 at Supreme Lobster and Seafood Co. in Villa Park. Members of the group cut the brake lines and damaged the refrigeration systems on dozens of the company's trucks.

Later that day, the group sent an e-mail to the Tribune claiming it targeted Supreme Lobster because it was "responsible for the deaths of more than 1 billion sea creatures over the past 25 years."

Webb said he did not take part in the vandalism and does not know who did. But he does support it.

The ALF's primary tactic is to target companies that it believes harms animals and cause those companies economic pain, generally through property damage. The goal is to convince people that animals should not be exploited.

Webb and other ALF members say they go to great lengths to ensure no one is harmed in their attacks.

In the Villa Park incident, "ALF--No Brakes" was spray-painted on a bay door of a company building as a warning not to drive the trucks, Webb said. Even if the message was unclear, drivers should have been able to figure out the brakes were inoperable before they got out of the company lot, meaning the risk of injury was minimal, Webb said.

A Supreme Lobster official said the damage was discovered when a driver started a truck, pushed on the brakes and got no response. The truck came to a stop before leaving the parking lot and did not hit anything or anyone, according to officials.

In other cities, members of ALF and a sister group, the Earth Liberation Front, have staged protests, handed out leaflets and picketed. But it's the violent acts that have drawn attention.

The groups have broken into laboratories, blown up cars, burned buildings, spray-painted homes and set animals free. Over the past decade, ALF members have been responsible for millions of dollars in damage.

"No one wants to break the law, but they feel compelled," said Webb, who also has encouraged people to speak at schools and talk to lawmakers.

Webb defends the violent tactics he spelled out to activists.

"I was certainly explaining that that's one way of moving toward animal liberation because, unfortunately, the law has failed," Webb said. "These are tactics that have been used in the past and have been successful."

Others disagree. Wayne Pacelle, senior vice president of the Humane Society of the United States in Washington, D.C., says ALF's message can get lost amid the violence.

"There's sympathy for the motive but increasing antipathy for the means," Pacelle said. "It's clearly counterproductive. We believe you lose your moral authority when you resort to vandalism, threats of violence and other means of illegal conduct."

Pacelle said ALF's tactics give the opposition ammunition and damage the image of other animal protection groups.

Patti Strand agrees. As president of the Portland-based National Animal Interest Alliance, she advocates for animal welfare by working with businesses, research facilities and farmers.

"This movement likes to compare itself to other social welfare movements, but in those movements, like the civil rights movement, you had leaders that condemned violence," Strand said. "That's not the case with this group."

Strand believes ALF hurts the animal welfare cause.

"It just confuses the public about what it is they should be supporting," Strand said.

Webb brushes aside such criticism, saying groups such as the Humane Society and NAIA simply aren't willing to do what needs to be done to protect animals.

At the Autonomous Zone, he talks about how easy it is to throw a rock through a butcher shop window or walk by with a hammer in your hand, then suddenly have a glass-shattering convulsion.

"Violence?" he says. "I utterly condemn extremism and violence."

Then Webb waits a beat.

"I do not condemn the compassionate commandos of the Animal Liberation Front."

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