Picking the Right Time for Action
from No Compromise Issue 25


It’s 1999 in San Francisco. A determined group of activists gains access to the labs at a local university, smashes every piece of equipment in sight and reportedly liberates several mice. At a concurrent demonstration outside the lab, police eventually arrive and arrest two activists. Their charges are later dropped and protests at the lab continue.

Flash forward to July 13th, 2001. A large group of activists convene at the home of Cathy Brower, the Human Resources Executive for Huntingdon Life Sciences. Dozens of activists are present as part of a weekend of action against the notorious lab. Some are seasoned activists, while others are attending their first demonstrations. Suddenly, someone throws red paint, which splatters all over the front of Brower’s home. Some activists run; others stay. In the end, over a dozen activists are arrested, charged criminally and sued for damages in civil court. After months of litigation and infighting, the cases are resolved, with many of the activists paying an out-of-court settlement. Many arrested that day drop out of the movement.

The point of these two trips down memory lane? Times have changed. The amount of repression has increased. We need to learn to adapt.

Our ability to adapt can be one of our most valuable resources and is one that we often neglect. As the world around us changes, we need to learn to change with it. It does not mean that there are no more smashed windows or no more red paint; it simply means that these things happen at 2 a.m. instead of 2 p.m. They happen solo or with a trusted friend instead of amongst a crowd of activists, some armed with video cameras and others with naiveté.

We are nostalgic creatures and there were certainly the “good old days,” just a few years ago, when a large number of people would turn out for a demonstration, something would be damaged or destroyed, and the police would show up, scratch their heads, and leave. There were few, if any lawsuits, filed against activists. In other words, repercussions for the frequent direct actions during regular demos were virtually non-existent.

But our opponents have stepped up their response a few notches, and the political atmosphere has become increasingly repressive. Now it is likely the known local organization, as well as key activists, will be sued. Some individuals may be arrested, others may receive visits from law enforcement and, in the end, the culprits may be caught.

Aside from the obvious legal repercussions of these actions, there are other concerns. For many, the Cathy Brower home demonstration, was their first—or one of their first—home demos. They were not seasoned activists. In the end, due to the pressure from law enforcement, lawsuits, and their inexperience, some activists agreed to give information about others. Still others—in fact a large majority of the attendees-- have dropped out of the movement. Certainly, regardless of this event, some of these individuals would be long gone anyway, and willingness to give information to authorities is absolutely inexcusable. However, the fact remains that these consequences could have been avoided or minimized and the damage to the abusers maximized had the action occurred outside the context of a standard demonstration.

The passion that motivates people at demonstrations can often become overwhelming and lead to more “direct” type action. While there is no question about the morality or effectiveness of destroying the property of animal abusers, the question remains as to when property destruction makes the most sense strategically. The answer, it seems, is that in the vast majority cases, the most strategic time to engage in sabotage is under the cover of darkness and in anonymity.

This rule of only engaging in property destruction and other types of direct action covertly is not hard and fast. There are times even today when, it could be argued, some individuals can use direct action tactics at a regular demonstration with no negative results-- and perhaps some positive ones. In instances where there are hundreds—if not thousands—of activists attending a demonstration, it is likely that a handful of individuals taking their tactics to the next level will inspire others, hit the intended target where it hurts, and will be unlikely to incur any arrests. But how often do we see this kind of turnout at animal rights events? On the flipside, if media, personal cameras, and other mitigating factors (such as new, inexperienced activists) are present, the harm will likely outweigh the good.

At the same time, direct action tactics at demonstrations where new activists are present can have a positive effect on these new activists. In many instances, exposure to these tactics at a regular demonstration is an extremely effective way to bring newer activists to the side of the spectrum that supports direct action tactics. Unfortunately, the situations in which the time, place, and circumstances allow for these types of actions at demonstrations are becoming fewer and farther between.

Ultimately, why smash a few windows in front of dozens of other activists and potential witnesses in broad daylight with video cameras rolling? Why not come back at night, do greater damage, and increase the likelihood of escaping unscathed exponentially?

Questions aside, get out there and smash the abusers…just do it strategically. Time and location are key and, simply put, daylight and innumerable witnesses are not the ideal circumstances for sabotage.