Jamming the Gears

Are These Front-Line Fighters Eco-Heroes or Eco-Terrorists?

‘“On October 16, 1997, my Eureka, California District Office was rocked by what sounded like a thunderous explosion. In fact, the sound was that of a 500-pound tree stump being dumped off a truck onto the office foyer floor. Upon responding to the horrific sound, my two female staff members were greeted by the visage of several Earth First! terrorists, one wearing a black ski mask, and another wearing dark goggles and a hood. The masked marauders—wearing combat boots and dressed in black from head to toe—and their cohorts, after the initial ‘stump drop,’ then dumped four large garbage bags of sawdust, pine needles and leaves all over the congressional office, over computers, desks and the floor.”

This excerpt from the testimony of Representative Frank D. Riggs (R-CA) before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime describes a typical encounter with “eco-commandos.” Not all such actions stop at the basically symbolic, as did the congressman’s relatively innocuous encounter. Nor are they often as public: most are clandestine nocturnal forays. Examples include animal liberation raids, which disrupt scientific research and cause damage to factory farms; business and academic sabotage, sometimes including bomb detonations; and “monkey-wrenching,” aimed at stopping logging and construction projects by ruining tools and vehicles.

The media coined the phrase “eco-terrorism,” but some activists prefer “eco-tage” (a variation on sabotage) or “direct action.” Activists’ backgrounds and beliefs vary. Rodney Coronado, now with Earth First!, is a Yaqui Indian associated with several animal liberation raids and the sinking of two unoccupied Icelandic whaling ships. Critics have labeled some, like David Barbarash, spokesperson for the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), anarchist.

Barbarash confirms only that the group seeks to “liberate” animals from laboratories and factory farms, and to “destroy the property of animal abusers.” The latter can include “mischief” like spraypainting furrier shop windows, or more drastic action like “setting fires to buildings where the abuse is committed.” Common denominators in all activists are belief in environmental or animal rights causes, and disillusionment with traditional governmental means of accomplishing reform. “If you want to torture or kill an animal then you’re an upstanding member of society; if you want to save an animal from these people, then you’re labeled a terrorist!” Barbarash argues.

The jewel in direct action’s crown was the October 1998 explosion that caused $12 million in damages to the Vail ski resort. The act came shortly after Vail Resorts won a court battle against environmental groups, which had claimed Vail’s proposed expansion would ruin plans to reintroduce the lynx to the mountain. “On behalf of the lynx, five buildings and four ski lifts at Vail were reduced to ashes,” the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) statement said. “We will be back if this greedy corporation continues to trespass into wild and unroaded areas. For your safety and convenience, we strongly advise skiers to choose other destinations until Vail cancels its inexcusable plans for expansion.” Shortly after the event, Vail Resorts CEO Adam Aron announced, “We will take [these threats] seriously so our guests do not have to worry”—proving to many activists that eco-terrorism could have noticeable results.

Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), says her group’s modus operandi is very different from ELF’s in that it focuses on symbolic acts. But she adds, “People forget that a ski resort is anything other than a property investment or a place to have fun. They haven’t thought about the consequences for the environment or the animals.”

The actions at Vail were very effective at gaining public attention, but activists have been taking direct action along similar lines for more than 100 years. An animal-testing lecture at Britain’s University of Norwich turned into a student protest in 1876 and led to the passage of the Cruelty to Animals Act. But actions have escalated in the last 20 years. And since January 1, 2000, the ALF and ELF have claimed responsibility for at least 15 crimes, including lab raids on animal breeders, uprooting of genetically engineered vegetables and the torching of an Indiana home under construction which threatened a local watershed.

Opinions on direct environmental action vary. Defenders say the activists are brave crusaders for the planet’s well-being. But Dr. Greg Nelson, a spokesman for the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation, is not so sanguine. “ALF has no redeeming values, and we should not tolerate such actions by their operatives,” he says. “They should be locked up and then made to repay society for all of the costs.” Nelson’s comments followed a laboratory attack by the ALF in 1999 that, he says, robbed a brain cancer patient of a last-chance remedy, and set back research into brain tumors, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s.

Direct action partisans say that crimes against property need to be taken in perspective. Andy Savage, a British advocate of direct action who has been associated with the group Earth First!, asserts, “When we force our way into the offices of a company responsible for the violent and forcible {21}re-location’ of a forest, we are accused of being violent if we break a lock to get in. Yet the annihilation of a whole eco-system is called progress and development.” Adds Barbarash, “The ALF are acting out against a real terrorism which is occurring daily and on a massive scale against millions of animals.”

Savage and other direct activists say their behavior has been slanted by sensationalist media and a citizenry apathetic to corporate and government abuses. “It is no longer a question of whether or not such acts are violent,” Savage claims, “or what constitutes violence, but whether what the state has deemed violent is acceptable to the community as a whole.”

Additionally, eco-tageurs justify their actions under the principle that no humans—much less animals or the environment—are ever harmed. The groups are not organized—there is no head—but local cells may claim membership by adhering to guidelines when performing their activities. ALF’s guidelines are strict: liberating animals, revealing atrocities against animals, inflicting economic damage on abuse profiteers, and taking precautions against harming any animal, human or non-human. After an event, the group’s spokesperson receives a communique and publicizes the event. No member ever knows the names of other members. Using these localized, “disorganized” guerilla tactics, monkeywrenchers have been very successful at evading the authorities. One FBI agent has referred to trying to catch the groups as akin to “grabbing Jell-O.”

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Animal Rights National Conference 2018