New activism: Up close and personal

Some fear tactics of intimidation will turn violent

MSNBC News/June 26, 2003
By Miguel Llanos

An activist group with a well-defined purpose - bankrupting a single company - has caught the FBI's attention with a campaign of intimidation against company employees and anyone doing business with the firm. That strategy, which includes "animal independence" protests this July 4, is being emulated by other groups, creating momentum that a leading domestic terrorism expert fears will turn into deadly violence by environmental and animal rights activists.

"It's going exactly the way I said it would eight years ago," says criminal justice professor Gary Perlstein, referring to a "Mother Jones" magazine interview that looked at how the more extreme activist groups might evolve.

"They're going to go more violent and eventually attack human beings," Perlstein feels, in large part because of a decentralized structure that lets anyone join the cause without taking orders from above.

The Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front used the tactic to stage 600 clandestine attacks on property between 1996-2001, according to the FBI, causing $43 million in damage.

The attention now is centered on Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty, or SHAC, which uses very public, in-your-face intimidation instead of clandestine attacks on property.

"SHAC's intimidation level has never been seen in the United States before," says Perlstein, a professor emeritus at Oregon's Portland State University.

SHAC first appeared in the United States after its target - Huntingdon Life Services - in 2001 opened a New Jersey lab and sought U.S. investors. The U.S. shift came after Huntingdon was nearly bankrupted by SHAC protests in England, where it was founded.

A medical testing lab for pharmaceutical and other companies, Huntingdon has been targeted because it uses live rats, primates, beagles and other animals for tests.

SHAC Strategy

Kevin Jonas, a SHAC organizer in the United States, says he's offended that the group is labeled by some as terrorist. "Some of our tactics may be controversial, but they're not illegal," he insists. "We don't solicit, encourage or fund anyone to break the law. All SHAC does is report what happens ... in no way do we organize it."

He does sympathize with the attacks against Huntingdon, which he notes escalated in the United States this spring with a campaign targeting companies that do business with Huntingdon. The latest front focused on Japanese business partners, with 20 protests staged in mid-June.

The tactics include visits to the homes of Huntingdon employees, associates and even neighbors - planting ear-piercing whistles, dumping red paint and slashing tires in an effort to drive Huntingdon out of business.

"You can install all of the motion sensor lights in the world and it won't make a difference," activists let one Huntingdon employee know after attacking her home in San Diego, Calif., last March. "We've been in your house ... We've bumped' into you at Costco. You've given us the time while in line at Bank of America. ... We've been watching you and your family."

SHAC's Web site includes a database of companies, and their addresses, with ties to Huntingdon. Activists, many of them Animal Liberation Front supporters, are encouraged to target those companies and their executives worldwide. Some who act later post the home addresses and phone numbers of those targeted.

SHAC initially included Social Security numbers of some executives, but Jonas says those have since been removed. Other continuing tactics include e-mail, fax and phone barrages that aim to cripple a company's communications.

By any measure, the strategy has been successful. Several targeted banks, a financial auditor, an insurer and others have stopped doing business with Huntingdon.

Jonas says supporters, estimated by SHAC to number around 3,000, draw the line at physical violence. "We don't believe in harming human life," he says.

But he acknowledges that it's possible some U.S. sympathizers might go too far, noting that that happened in England when Huntingdon managing director Brian Cass was assaulted. That attack was condemned by SHAC, Jonas notes.

Perlstein, the criminal justice professor, fears another scenario: where those being intimidated strike back, escalating the conflict.

FBI Investigation

Neither the FBI nor Huntingdon responded to requests for comment, but it is clear that both take SHAC very seriously.

As part of a grand jury investigation, the FBI last April raided SHAC offices in Franklin, N.J., near Huntingdon's U.S. lab. An FBI spokesman at the time said the raid was tied to one that same day in Seattle.

Jonas says at least six grand juries are investigating SHAC and other animal rights groups. One SHAC supporter was jailed in mid-June for refusing to testify before a New Jersey grand jury.

Perlstein says if he were a target, he'd assemble "the best security one can devise" and "get together with my legal team and really go after them in civil court."

Courts in California, Illinois, New Jersey and New York have already acted on Huntingdon's requests for help, restricting e-mail and protest actions. But Jonas notes supporters can evade those, using anonymous e-mail accounts and protesting just outside the perimeters set by courts.

Jonas promises a day of protests on July 4 in California, New Jersey and New York, using Independence Day to rally for the release of lab animals.

ALF, ELF Evolve as Well

SHAC's influence has emerged as the longer established Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front have gone through their own evolution.

Perlstein, who's studied domestic terrorism for 25 years, notes that ALF and ELF have been able to broaden their networks across the country, using the Internet to disseminate tactics for destroying property.

ELF in particular has broadened its scope as it spread out from the Pacific Northwest. Whereas ELF's initial efforts focused on logging issues, he says, recent attacks targeting urban sprawl and gas-guzzling SUVs have taken place in the Midwest and East Coast. Supporters have torched or attempted to torch several new homes, fast-food restaurants and SUVs in the last year.

It was that broader reach that led Perlstein and others to form Stop Eco-Violence, a group aiming to draw attention to the issue.

Perlstein also has his eye on another new group, this one founded last May by two former ELF and ALF spokesmen. Dubbed Arissa, it's "definitely now preaching for a revolution" but has yet to adopt actual acts of violence, says Perlstein.

Co-founder Craig Rosebraugh last March issued a missive urging supporters to "physically shut down" U.S. financial and media centers.

What Future Holds

A major difference between Arissa and SHAC is that while the former promotes broad action against the U.S. government, the latter is focused on a single enemy, at least for now.

That difference could explain SHAC's success.

Even Cass, Huntingdon's director, told a London conference of business executives last May that SHAC is proving that "if you go to extreme violence, the chances are you will win."

"There needs to be an understanding that this is a threat to all industries," Cass warned. "The tactics could be extended to any other sectors of the economy."

SHAC and Huntingdon actually agree on that, with Jonas noting that some environmental and "anti-globalization" activists are already adopting SHAC's model.

"It's about finding your target and their vulnerabilities," Jonas says of SHAC's philosophy. "Our strategy is to take one (enemy) out at a time."

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