Three years ago, my friend Tyler and I crept onto a squalid and cramped fur farm in northern Illinois and released two thousand mink from their cages to save their lives. Approximately a year later, a man in Fresno, California, crept onto a Foster Farms broiler facility and bludgeoned nine hundred chickens to death with a golf club. As this man was sentenced to 120 days in county jail, I sat in federal prison facing ten years.
This is all the more remarkable because, aside from my nonviolent activism, I lead a relatively simple life. I live a half hour from the house where I grew up. I am the proud parent of a shelter dog. I have ongoing dinner plans with my mother on Thursdays. Yet according to the FBI, the USDOJ, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and any employer or landlord who does a simple google search, I am a terrorist, convicted under a piece of designer legislation called the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act.
This morning, I stood beside Center for Constitutional Rights attorney Rachel Meeropol as she challenged the constitutionality of that law before the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. The AETA plainly encompasses, and was in fact clearly crafted to repress, speech. But, being someone who prefers action over words, I note another, equally disturbing problem with this law. The government has federalized a property crime and labeled it terrorism based solely upon the content of the defendants’ social and political beliefs. I have a vested interest in the matter, but this should be a concern for us all, irrespective of one’s feelings about animal rights.
That said, there is a reason why it is animal rights activists who are deemed such easy targets. People often ask me how freeing minks and foxes from harm could be considered so serious a crime. To be honest, I don’t think this question can be answered without looking at the message that actions like this seek to transmit.
Animal advocates pose questions that go beyond the profits of a particular industry. Questions that strike at our conceptions of ourselves as human beings and of the societies we have built. Questions that challenge some of the most intimate aspects of our daily lives, right down to our food choices. When we grasp that animals are unique individuals with their own thoughts, feelings, fears, and attachments like ours, should we continue to assign them the legal and social status of property? Should we – may we – continue to participate in the ugly and unspeakable violence inherent in raising billions of them to die for us each year?
The AETA does not exist because the government is deeply concerned about the danger posed by releasing small mammals from captivity. In discrediting and marginalizing those who take action for animals, it ultimately seeks to marginalize and invalidate the ethical concerns that prompt such action.
But industries always wish to marginalize those who call attention to injustice, and, I imagine, would love to craft anti-terrorism laws for each movement of concerned individuals that they find threatening. We all know that agribusiness, pharmaceutical companies, and fur farmers – those who drafted and lobbied for the AETA – are most comfortable when the questions posed by animal advocates are pushed to the side. But the reason it has been easy to impose measures as harsh as the AETA is that the majority of people feel most comfortable that way too.
So for all of us cheering on CCR’s challenge to the AETA, let us do our part and challenge our own comfort. Undertaking the action that landed me in prison, I sought not only to save individual animals, but also to challenge the comfort that allows all of us to ignore the billions of other individuals who remain trapped in the same systems. That action was my challenge to my own comfort and complacency as well.
And the experience had a profound impact on me. I have seen humpback whales breaching in the Antarctic summer and wild horses frolicking in the high desert of Utah. I have watched the sun rise on Yellow Mountain. But I have never in my life witnessed anything as beautiful as those minks feeling their feet touch the earth for the first time on the night of August 13, 2013. I hope that among those who avoided recapture and made it, their children have had children, and I am long forgotten. But I will never forget them, or that night, for the rest of my life.
The appellate hearing this morning means many things to many people, but to me it will always be for those individuals who gave me that gift.