Southern Poverty Law Center responds to Friends of Animals
Read Friends of Animals' response to this letter.
SOUTHERN POVERTY LAW CENTER
400 WASHINGTON AVENUE — MONTGOMERY, AL 36104
May 8, 2003
Friends of Animals
777 Post Road
Darien, CT 06820
Dear Ms. Feral,
Morris Dees forwarded me your letter and the accompanying ACTIONLINE Story attacking our own Intelligence Report article, “From Push to Shove.” As the editor of the story in question, he asked that I respond to your legal director’s criticisms.
Although you make some efforts to treat us fairly - referring to us as a reputable organization, noting that we defend the defenseless in society - your article as a whole strikes me as an extremely defensive and at times somewhat bizarre take on what we are saying. Overall, the largest misreading of what we are saying is the idea that “the SPLC summarily condemns an entire ethical movement.” That is simply false, and I do not agree that anything we have written says or implies that. There is no question that environmentalist and animal rights activists have done a very great deal of good in the world. We think it’s a very good thing that these activists have, for instance, reduced animal suffering in a major way, just as we think it’s obviously a good thing that environmentalists are fighting hard to preserve the planet and its resources. Your article seems to go to extraordinary lengths - to the point of tortured logic in a number of instances - to criticize us and our reasoning. What you never do is condemn the violence that is increasingly evident in these movements, opting instead to say merely that it is counter-productive and to depict those who promote it as the unimportant lunatic fringe of environmentalism and animal rights.
I will try to take a number of points in your story one by one, although I don’t know quite how to respond to the baseless accusation that we have resorted to using “all things salacious and sensational.” Attacks like that are unsupported by anything in the story, and indeed, your writer adduces no instances of this at all. In fact, this accusation seems like more of a way to avoid discussing the facts than any kind of legitimate criticism. You also seem to have missed a key point: With the exception of our discussion of SHAC and the so-called Justice Department group, we have completely rejected the term “eco-terrorism” pushed by the FBI and others, and have said publicly and repeatedly that we find the FBI’s characterization of animal rights violence as the leading domestic terrorism threat to be absurd (just think of Timothy McVeigh). In any event, let me turn to some of the specifics in your article.
Right out of the gate, you attack us for “perpetuating … the association of foreign origins with criminality,” and later repeat that, complaining that we did not mention the Helen Steel/Dave Morris case even though that was another case of “foreign influence” (your writer puts that last phrase in quotes as if we wrote it, when in fact it appears nowhere in the article at all). Are you kidding? Do you really believe that we describe the British origins of the most violent wing of the animal rights movement as a way of saying that animal rights activism is evil? Let me say for the record: That is an absurd and groundless accusation. Believe it or not, we take our journalism seriously here, and it is a fact that the most violent ideology has been propounded by the British wing of these movements - a fact that we think it is plainly useful for our readers to know. You have somehow mutated this perfectly legitimate reportage into us blaming the forever infamous “outside agitators.”
Proceeding through the article, you next say the Animal Rights 2001 Conference “is not an animal-rights event at all.” Your reasoning? You don’t like the organizations - PETA, ALF, ELF and SHAC - who were there. You parenthetically attack us for using a quote that has also been publicized by the Center for Consumer Freedom, implying we are in bed with these evil people. I have news for you: We were at that conference, we collected the quote ourselves, in person and on a videotape to boot. We are not being hand-fed by industry interests, as you suggest. Your argumentation avoids the substance of what we are saying in favor of mere ad hominem slurs.
You don’t like our list of incidents, saying it is “unsystematic” and suggesting that it deviously mixes the “notorious” and the “obscure.” That list is a tiny smattering of the thousands of incidents that have occurred, and is specifically meant to give a sense of the different kind of attacks we’ve seen. In fact, it includes a couple of incidents that make it rather clear that someone ultimately will be killed by ALF or ELF: the March 18, 1998, ALF torching of a Utah fur store while a night watchman was inside, and the Dec. 31, 1999, ELF arson of a Michigan State University laboratory while a faculty member was there working late. You attack us for listing these incidents, additionally, because in many cases no perpetrator has been arrested - even though these actions have been claimed by ALF or ELF! You continue in this vein when, later in the article, you complain that we mentioned the 2001 arsons of luxury homes in Long Island even though “the teens’ lawyer” says the accused “had no connection to [ELF’s] leadership.” To me, that statement betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of ELF and ALF. You are automatically a member, as these groups say themselves, if you carry out an action in their name - unless, of course, you manage to kill a person or animal. Then, these two organizations magically absent themselves, saying such actions are automatically not those of the ALF/ELF. What a wonderfully convenient setup! That’s one sure way to be non-violent. The reality is that ALF/ELF is organized precisely like the violent anti-abortion zealots of the deadly Army of God. Anyone who carries out an action in the name of the group (whether they say they are called by God or by their own conscience) is a member, per se. The question of links to the leaders is irrelevant. This is your basic leaderless resistance model; the leaders do not order anyone to do anything. Instead, in ALF, ELF and AOG, they urge others to act but refuse to take responsibility.
You suggest that we should “challenge society” to consider what caused the so-called “kid in crisis” who carried out the Long Island action to act - his childhood, or whatever other problem may be behind his “crisis.” I don’t mean to sound rude, but this argument is precisely analogous to the people on the far right who criticize us for opposing anti-abortion violence without offering a dissertation on the fetuses that are killed during abortions. Many of these anti-abortion extremists have personal issues, too, just like your “kid in crisis.” Furthermore, just like many animal rights activists, most anti-abortion zealots are acting sincerely, because they see abortion as murder - they are trying to “save the babies.” How is that different than the person who burns down a house or beats someone up with a baseball bat because he or she sincerely believes that this is the only way to “save the animals”?
After giving a lukewarm condemnation of violence - apparently because activists “will ultimately lose any arms race with the government” - you go on to uncritically accept the ALF/ELF contention that they have “a policy of respect for life and non-violence.” I find that a remarkable statement. Have you noticed that a major faction of the ELF has publicly said that now is the time to “pick up the gun”? What about the ALF’s on-line arson guide? Do you accept the idea that if violence occurs during an ALF/ELF action, it automatically becomes NOT an ALF/ELF action? Craig Rosebraugh, the long-time spokesman for the ELF and now an elder statesman in the movement, this March 17 went a step or two further, now calling for “large scale urban rioting,” destruction of the national television networks and cable channels, and violent targeting of U.S. military facilities to stop the war against Iraq. The same month, he told another group: “Terrorism can be OK, can be justified…. It can be effective. … You can’t draw a line between nonviolence and political violence.”
At about this point, you make an eyebrow-raising statement - that “intimidation is usually not a violation of human rights by world standards.” I really have no idea what you’re talking about here, but I would suggest to your writer that people on whose lawns the Klan has burned crosses are quite unlikely to agree. I think the Freedom Riders who braved the most terrifying kind of intimidation during the civil rights movement might also have a different view of your “world standards.”
The list goes on - I find your discussion of what really constitutes “direct action,” along with your implication that we oppose the “right of association” to be really quite bizarre - but I think what I have already written probably suffices. Your article worries that “society has yet to accept the concept of animal rights on a serious scale.” I submit to you that that may well be because you and other “mainstream” activist organizations, especially in the animal rights movement, have failed to condemn the escalating violence. Regardless of the FBI’s view of this situation, it’s a fact that more and more Americans have heard of animal rights only through the violent acts of activists - or through the publicity stunt of parading naked supermodels, which you rightly mock. Our story was intended in large part as a warning to our colleagues in progressive organizations - bad people are increasingly taking over the more extreme wings of these movements. I think it would help you and the rest of us, too, if you came right out and criticized the violence, rather than attacking the bearers of bad news. I just think it’s plain mealy-mouthed to suggest the “right to associate” is what’s at issue here, as you say in the last paragraph of the section headed “The importance of preserving the right of association.” Read the paragraph, and you will see that what your writer is really discussing is violence - violence that he or she seems to feel is necessary to serve as some kind of a “safety valve.”
I will not bother to add a list of the more egregious acts of violence that have occurred in these movements since we published “From Push to Shove,” other than to mention that they include cutting the brake lines of lobster delivery trucks in Chicago and the 3 a.m. burning of two houses on either side of a home containing a family with children in an Ann Arbor. Mich., subdivision. (“My family was in danger,” the terrified father said later.) I think I’ve made my points as well as I can.
I know this letter has been quite combative in tone, but despite that I am not trying to alienate you. As I suggested at the beginning, I think we clearly share many of your goals and, in any case, are certainly not opposed to them in any way. However, I think your article contains an array of misrepresentations and, most importantly, it fails to really grapple with the issue of violence. Your whole response seems to be to accuse us of “bolster[ing] those who would stir up murderous violence.” I find that unfair, to be kind. The idea that we “summarily condemn” environmentalism or the animal rights movement is, quite simply, preposterous. We do, however, condemn the escalating violence, and for this we offer no apologies at all.
Editor, Intelligence Report
Southern Poverty Law Center
Read Friends of Animals' response to this letter.