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
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
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.