Mar 16, 2006 | 04:21 GMT

14 mins read

SHAC Convictions: The Martyrdom Effect

By Fred Burton A federal jury in New Jersey recently convicted the animal-rights group Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) and six of its key members on charges related to their radical tactics targeting Huntingdon Life Science Inc. (HLS). The charges are tied to the group's efforts to post personal information about people associated with HLS on the Internet — information that was then used by other activists to harass, threaten and generally terrorize those targets. The organization was convicted of all six federal charges: conspiracy to violate the Animal Enterprise Protection Act; conspiracy to commit interstate stalking; three counts of interstate stalking of specific victims; and conspiracy to use a telecommunications device to abuse, threaten and harass persons. The individual defendants, all of whom were found guilty of at least one charge, are set for sentencing in June. Despite the hopes of HLS executives and others who have been targeted, the convictions are not likely to pose much of a setback for SHAC, which has achieved significant successes with its radical campaign tactics. The group was formed in 1999 in Britain, specifically for the purpose of driving HLS — which uses animals in testing drugs, chemicals and consumer items for harmful side effects — out of business. Over the years, that campaign has come to mean that the group targets not only HLS executives, but also employees and executives of other companies — from investors to local contractors and service providers — that do business with HLS. And it targets them in highly personal ways. Tactics have included personal harassment, intimidation, character defamation, vandalism and arson. SHAC activists pursue their targets not only at their places of work, but at their homes, their children's schools, in restaurants and other public and private locations. Such tenacious campaigns have dramatically weakened HLS — but even more significantly, other activist groups have noticed, and now appear to be adopting, SHAC's tactics and larger strategy. Against this backdrop, SHAC's federal convictions — the most serious of which carries a maximum prison sentence of six years and a $250,000 fine — are not likely to have a tremendous impact. SHAC members are passionately committed to their cause, and past legal injunctions and convictions — such as a six-and-a-half-year prison sentence for member Sarah Gisbourne in Britain — have had more of a martyring than a chilling effect on the group's campaigns. In fact, shortly after the SHAC convictions were announced this month, an Earth First! member posted this message on the Internet: "NOW is the time to take steps to boost your own security, to insulate people from possible snitches — and to increase the pressure on HLS or whatever your favorate [sic]cor(pse)orate target is in order to retaliate. Protect yourself and your comrades — and MAKE CORPORATE AMERIKKKA PAY for this shit!" Loose Structure, Holistic Strategy SHAC's opposition to vivisection has caused the group to cross the Atlantic in pursuit of HLS, a company its members have attacked from just about every conceivable angle. SHAC's grand strategy assumes that, by making it very costly for any company to do business with HLS, the research group will be driven out of business — and SHAC will have scored a significant victory for the activists' cause. SHAC is an international campaign. In the United States, it has been particularly active around HLS headquarters in New Jersey, but SHAC members have taken actions against targets from New York to California and from Florida to Washington state. Within the broader animal rights movement, SHAC operates in parallel with, and to some degree overlaps, the radical Animal Liberation Front (ALF). Like the ALF, SHAC is not an organized group in the standard sense, since it lacks defined membership and a clear command structure. It does, however, have an identifiable leadership; the current president of SHAC USA is former child actress Pamelyn Ferdin, who is known for roles as the voice of "Lucy" in the Peanuts comic strip movies, "Sally" in "The Cat in the Hat" and as Felix Unger's daughter in the "Odd Couple" TV show. The people involved with SHAC can be roughly divided into three tiers. The smallest would be those who engage in illegal direct-action activities and the group's wealthy donors, who give anonymously. The second tier consists of those willing to engage in legal acts of harassment, attend rallies, and collect and disseminate the personal information of potential targets. The largest tier comprises mainly passive sympathizers — including employees at target companies who might disclose the confidential addresses and phone numbers of their coworkers and bosses. Since there is no formal membership, the numbers are in no way fixed — anyone can wake up tomorrow, read about SHAC on the Internet, and engage in an activity that night that propels them directly into the first tier. The type of harassment and vandalism carried out by SHAC and ALF has been limited only by the activists' creativity and imagination. Among the nonviolent tactics are vocal protests outside the homes of corporate executives (sometimes in the middle of the night), crank phone calls and subscribing targeted businesspeople to numerous magazines (sometimes including hard-core pornography). SHAC USA activists claim to have called the church of one executive and made allegations that he inappropriately touched children at the church. They have positioned mobile billboards (in addition to "wanted" posters) throughout a target's neighborhood. In at least one case, SHAC USA activists approached and harassed the child of an executive at the child's school. They also distributed pamphlets at the school detailing what they viewed as the company's misdeeds. Acts of vandalism claimed by SHAC run the gamut from strewing trash and setting off high-decibel alarms outside a target's home to detonating stink bombs inside businesses. More significant property attacks have involved throwing bricks and bottles of urine through windows and paint-stripping and fire-bombing cars. Foam often has been used to clog car exhaust pipes and locks. In one case, SHAC claims to have completely defaced the home of HLS chief executive Andrew Baker. The excerpt below was posted to SHAC USA's Web site: "On Sunday, July 18, we caught wind that an activist in New York had been arrested at a peaceful protest at CEO Andrew Baker's New York home. This did not settle well with us. Activists decided to take matters into our own hands by paying a visit to Andrew Baker's Los Angeles home. We swarmed the home and jumped right over the wall around his house. We set off a strip of 1,000 firecrackers. The noise and sparks were just the beginning of our work. By the time we were ready to leave, there were broken planter boxes, a destroyed fountain, busted windows, and smashed security cameras. The garbage cans tipped over, and there was glass and garbage everywhere. Andrew doesn't even have a mailbox anymore. It was kicked into pieces. Nothing was left the way we found it." Scare tactics also are widely used by the activists. In one case, a mangled "crucified voodoo doll" was placed on the doorstep of the daughter of a CEO at one of HLS's supplier companies. Another executive found his name spelled out with expended shotgun shells in his driveway; a live shell with a note reading, ominously, "One of Two," was left nearby. Some activists claim they have sent hoax bombs to frighten their targets, and people associated with SHAC have hacked computers, stolen credit card information, sent spam email to their targets and even hacked into the frequent flyer account of one person in the United States. Scare tactics — for instance, a message reading "How would you like to see your son dismembered alive?" — sometimes appear to threaten violence, but more often are intended to draw parallels with the suffering the activists say animals experience in HLS' business operations. Occasionally, however, animal-rights activists do become violent. For example, an activist from Berkeley, Calif., is being sought in connection with a series of pipe bombings in August and September 2003 that targeted Chiron Corp. and Shaklee Inc., companies that have ties to HLS. There is evidence that in one of those cases, the bomber intended to inflict serious harm: One of the pipe bombs apparently was timed with a delay in order to injure emergency responders. And in February 2001, HLS's managing director was nearly beaten to death by three men wielding pickax handles. It probably would be inaccurate to suggest that this act was orchestrated by SHAC's leadership, since most SHAC activity is conducted autonomously and this beating does not fit SHAC's general tactical pattern. Animal-rights activists generally do not condone violent action, but neither do they always condemn it in very strong terms — sometimes labeling the anger that prompts it "understandable." Whether condoned or not, however, the efforts of SHAC members have been brutally effective; banks, pension funds and insurance companies have abandoned HLS, as have service companies such as Xerox, Federal Express and UPS. According to information published on SHAC's Web sites, the group claims it has caused more than 160 companies and organizations to stop doing business with HLS. And HLS is now experiencing significant financial problems: It was dropped from the New York Stock Exchange in 2000 as a result of SHAC activities and delisted from the London Stock Exchange the following year. Facing insolvency in England, HLS reincorporated in Maryland as Life Sciences Research, Inc., in 2002. It was to be listed on the NYSE in 2005, but the listing was postponed when SHAC published names and contact information of NYSE officials. Cross-Pollination and Evolving Campaigns Because SHAC's methods have been so effective — measured in terms of how many companies have severed ties to HLS and the economic damage done to HLS and its shareholders — there is a high likelihood that they will be adopted by other groups in the animal rights and environmentalist movements. There is a great deal of interaction among these groups: SHAC members have been or are currently involved with Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Moreover, there is much encouragement among these groups to emulate successful tactics used by others. As the Ruckus Society puts it in its Action Planning Manual, "Openness to new ideas also includes the ability to see good ideas in other quarters, and appropriate them. You can't copyright an action, so don't be afraid to steal good ideas. Become a student of the ways other groups or individuals are taking action. Pay special attention to direct actions by non-environmental groups, who are doing some of the most creative stuff today." The Ruckus Society also conducts live training sessions for activist groups, where members of animal-rights organizations like SHAC and ALF rub shoulders with activists from Greenpeace, the Rainforest Action Network (RAN), the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and other groups. It is easy to see the cross-pollination that occurs after such training sessions. For example, several different flavors of activist groups have used the same design for "dragon sleeves" — devices protesters use to lock themselves together and to buildings and other structures. Activists from various groups frequently use the same climbing techniques during banner drops and the same techniques to conduct surveillance of potential targets as well. Perhaps the most famous example of cross-pollination occurred when ALF posted a document titled "Setting Fires with Electrical Timers, An ELF Guide" to its Web site. Of course, some tactics used by SHAC were used by others before it. Organizations like AIDS activist group ACT UP and the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador have occasionally protested at the homes of people they hoped to influence, sent letters to their homes or made crank calls to their residential phones. Where SHAC differs from these groups — and the seed it is now spreading — is in its far-flung and relentless execution of the tactic, and in the considerable amount of damage it has caused to personal property. Future Implications This tactical cross-pollination between SHAC and other activist groups might already be bearing fruit. A year ago, RAN began to target the CEO of a major financial services company at his home in Greenwich, Conn., by placing Wild West-style "wanted" posters in his neighborhood. Two RAN members were arrested in connection with that incident — but Dan Firger, a spokesman for RAN, said at the time, "This is not going to go away and what happened on March 5 is not a fluke. Because so many other top executives and decision-makers of corporations live in Greenwich, it's going to be very important to be able to come there and speak out in the public arena." More recently, in December 2005, there were signs that his prediction was coming true: The group Students for Bhopal staged a protest at the home of a former chemical company executive, rapping on windows and yelling through bullhorns. The tactic of bringing the protest home to corporate executives is catching on. Though SHAC's tactics are spreading, it is impossible to predict to what degree the physical or psychological violence that have marked its actions will be matched by other groups. The level of violence in a campaign usually correlates to how much moral outrage activists feel is justified by the target's actions. Put another way, when activists are offended by what they view as the "murder" of animals or people, such as in the 1984 Bhopal accident, there is a greater tendency to use violence than in protests over less egregious offenses. That means that in most cases, direct actions at the homes of corporate executives likely won't amount to more than low-level harassment, chanting and posters. But even these kinds of activity are sufficient to get the attention of executives — and in the future, possibly their counterparts at associated companies — and result in major headaches for corporate security directors. Ultimately, the conviction of the SHAC Six could serve to inspire more illegal activity, rather than less, and the trend could spread to involve larger numbers of groups and industries. Industries that are closely associated with human health, pollution or environmental issues — chemicals, mining or drilling, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and forestry products companies, for example — may be at particular risk, but given the tactics in play, the threat also could be extrapolated to include financial and other service providers who count these companies as customers. Many of those who have been targeted by SHAC in the past had hoped that, since the group likely has no more than several dozen participants who are willing to risk arrest, these few could now be jailed or discouraged by the fate of their counterparts — leading to the collapse of the movement. Similarly, there has been some speculation that if SHAC's sources of funding could be identified and cut off, the campaign would be choked. We view both outcomes, however, as unlikely; not only do activists tend to rally around members who are jailed or otherwise punished for their actions, but SHAC's operating methods do not require large amounts of funding. At this point, a few other groups are copying SHAC's tactics, but it is possible — if not likely — that many other activist groups/causes will spawn radical wings that take a page from SHAC's playbook and begin targeting the homes of corporate executives, employees and board members.

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