Natasha Lennard: How the Prosecution of Animal Rights Activists as Terrorists Foretold Today’s Criminalization of Dissent

“You see the train coming, but it hits you anyway,” said animal rights activist Josh Harper. “They just went down the list and it was ‘guilty as charged,’ ‘guilty as charged,’ ‘guilty as charged’ — every defendant, every count.” This is how, in the new documentary film “The Animal People,” Harper describes learning that he and his five co-defendants had been convicted on terrorism charges by a federal jury in 2006 for their involvement in animal rights struggle. The train was an apt metaphor for a case in which the government’s approach was indeed as grimly predictable as a commuter rail schedule, but nonetheless delivered a violent and shocking blow to the defendants, their movement, and those who believed in free speech rights in this country.

The convicted activists were members of Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty, known as SHAC, a decentralized animal rights movement that spread across the U.K. and U.S. from the late 1990s into the mid-2000s. The movement took aim at the notorious animal testing lab company Huntingdon Life Sciences, which did contract work for corporations. SHAC organized a potent direct-action campaign, which, at a number of points, threatened to shutter the huge testing corporation by driving investors to disaffiliate and divest. The tactics were diverse, from spreading information on animal cruelty, to holding demonstrations, to the occasional act of property damage. In response to SHAC activity, the FBI in 2005 deemed the animal liberation movement to be America’s No. 1 domestic terrorism threat. This, despite the fact that not a single human or animal was injured by SHAC activity in the country.

“The Animal People,” which is available on demand as of this week, focuses on the story of Harper and his co-defendants, all of whom were convicted under spurious charges of conspiracy to commit terrorism — though none of whom were found to have participated directly in any illegal acts. These were activists who attended raucous but legal protests, shared publicly available information about corporations on their website, and celebrated and supported militant actions taken in the name of the SHAC campaign. That is, they were convicted as terrorists for speech activity.

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