I got involved in grassroots animal rights activism in Auckland about 15 years ago. I met my first animal activists at a SAFE volunteer meeting and then went on to get involved in the local grassroots group active at the time, Auckland Animal Action (AAA). Meeting these activists at SAFE and AAA changed me from a vegetarian ‘normal’ person that cared but didn’t do anything, to a radical vegan animal rights activist pretty much overnight. I got caught up in a whirlwind of grassroots activism and my life changed forever.
Back then in the early 2000’s, the grassroots campaign strategies and tactics we used were very hard-hitting and no compromise. We didn’t care about the public, the dialogue was between us and the animal abusers. We were going to shut them down and smash the state at the same time! We were young, we were angry and we believed our radical activism would be enough, without the public sympathy, to stop the animal abuse that we were so enraged and heartbroken about. I didn’t fully realise at the time but this feeling and approach was where the global grassroots animal rights movement was at across the board, it wasn’t just our little group in Auckland that felt this way. And a lot of this feeling grew out of a campaign run in the UK and USA at the time called SHAC (Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty). The strategy taken by the SHAC campaign shaped the global movement then and it also shaped me as a young activist starting out.
The SHAC campaign was a grassroots campaign that aimed to shut down a company called Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS). HLS is the UK’s largest contract animal testing laboratory testing medical and non-medical substances on around 75,000 animals every year, from rats to beagle dogs to primates. Undercover investigations by activists and journalists have exposed horrific animal abuse at the lab since 1989. In 1999 an investigation revealed particularly shocking footage of an HLS lab worker shouting at a beagle puppy, shaking her violently and repeatedly punching her in the head after not being able to insert a catheter into her vein. A small group of British animal rights activists were so outraged by this footage that they started up the SHAC campaign; a campaign that spread to the USA and across the globe, reaching New Zealand and lasting for 15 years before ending in 2014.
SHAC hit America in 2001 and was founded by activist Kevin Jonas after he’d spent 2 years in the UK working on the SHAC campaign over there. SHAC’s strategy was unique in that it involved secondary and tertiary targeting. Secondary and tertiary targeting meant that the campaign was focused not only on HLS, but on HLS’s business partners, and their business partners, insurers, caterers, cleaners, lab equipment suppliers, shareholders, office suppliers and so on. Any company with ties to HLS was considered a legitimate target for the campaign.
Activists engaged in diverse tactics ranging from lawful protests to letter writing to undercover investigations to direct action and everything in between. Every tool in the toolbox was encouraged as long as it didn’t harm humans or animals.
This strategy allowed the SHAC campaign to happen effectively outside of the UK and USA. In New Zealand, the local grassroots groups were running campaigns against companies based here that had ties to HLS. I remember being involved in protests outside various HLS suppliers, doing early morning ‘home demonstrations’ and being part of ‘days of action’ involving sending mass emails to New Zealand based companies asking them to reconsider their involvement with HLS.
SHAC’s unique and comprehensive strategy proved very successful in bringing HLS to its knees as company after company severed their ties with the lab. It just wasn’t worth it to these companies when they could do their business in peace elsewhere.
A key player in SHAC USA at the time was a young man called Jake Conroy. Recently the New Zealand Animal Rights Movement was lucky enough to host Jake and have him speak at the AR17 conference and other public talks organised across the country. In Auckland the grassroots animal rights group I’m involved with now, Direct Animal Action (DAA), organised for Jake to speak about his experiences being involved in SHAC USA. But there’s a lot more to Jake’s story that simply being involved in running the campaign!
Because SHAC was so successful, bringing a multi-million dollar animal abuse corporation to its knees, naturally the USA and UK Government’s became very interested in who they perceived to be the ‘leaders’ of the campaign. Both Government’s went on to take pretty strong action to repress this uprising of people power. In 2005 a US federal jury found six members of SHAC USA, including Jake Conroy, guilty of using their website to incite attacks on those who did business with HLS. In 2009 and 2010, 13 members of SHAC UK were jailed for between 15 months and eleven years on charges of conspiracy to blackmail or harm HLS and its suppliers.
When Jake spoke to the New Zealand movement recently, he told us about the repression he and other SHAC activists experienced from the UK and USA Government’s as well as from corporate investigators and the Bureau of Prisons while incarcerated. He talked to us about being the target of a multi-agency terrorism investigation, learning he was on a high-profile prisoners list, and how he navigated living a life branded as a terrorist in post-9/11 society. All this he endured to bring about an end to animal testing. Jake and his co-defendants were known as the SHAC 7, and were prosecuted as domestic terrorists under the Animal Enterprise Protection Act, all sentenced to a variety of prison terms. Jake was sentenced to 48 months, which he served in 2 prisons in southern California.
In 2009 Jake walked out of prison after spending 3 years incarcerated as a political prisoner. He now lives in Seattle and works for Rainforest Action Network as a designer. Jake’s been involved in a wide range of activism since 1995, including various acts of civil disobedience, hundreds of protests, and countless educational outreach events. He currently organizes the Seattle Burrito Coalition, feeding the homeless communities in Seattle one vegan burrito at a time.
Of the SHAC campaign, Jake said he thinks the most important thing we can learn is that our activism needs to be strategic, smart, and creative, while being thoughtful, careful, and calculated. Jake says, “We (SHAC) were happy to push the envelope and support radical ideas and tactics when others wouldn’t. We believed in people power, horizontal and autonomous organizing, and supporting and using every tool in the toolbox to enact change. Within months, we managed to gain victories as an all-volunteer organisation where huge national organisations couldn’t. We captured the hearts and minds of activist communities and the general public, and we were off and running, bulldozing anyone that got in our way.”
I didn’t know it 15 years ago when I first started out in activism, but I know it now. Jake and others like him, along with the SHAC campaign, taught me that people power is what will change the world. You don’t need to be part of a big organisation to make change. You don’t need to wait for politicians to do the right thing. With co-ordinated, organised, strategic planning and action, ordinary people like you and me can come together and beat Goliath. We can win and we will win for the animals. This is the power of the grassroots.
For more information about Jake and SHAC please visit http://jakeconroy.com and www.shac7.com
Check out Jake’s talk From Activist to “Terrorist” here www.youtube.com/watch?v=XgARuabK_x0