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Animal Rights: “A Very Noble Cause” or Terrorism? The State Just Can’t Decide

One advocate says the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act was devised to “conjure public fear of the animal liberation movement.”

(Photo: Dzīvnieku brīvība)

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On Tuesday, animal rights activist Tyler Lang received a sentence of time served for his role in freeing 2,000 mink from a fur farm and spray-painting “Liberation is Love” on the side of a barn in Morris, Illinois, in August 2013.

The fur farm closed down as a result of the action.

In 2014, Lang and his co-defendant Kevin Johnson were indicted under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) for the mass animal release — an act of protest that the pair’s supporters refer to as a “mink liberation.” On February 29, 2016, Johnson was sentenced to three years in prison for his role in the action.

After Lang’s release, a member of his support team, Amanda Schemkes, who does legal and prisoner support work for activists, spoke to Truthout about the nature of the case, Lang’s experience as a defendant and what the future may hold in this realm of direct action.

Kelly Hayes: Could you say a bit about the case itself, what happened and what the prosecutorial response was like?

Amanda Schemkes: Kevin Olliff (aka Kevin Johnson) and Tyler Lang were indicted under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act for freeing 2,000 mink from a fur farm, which shut down as a result of their action. Both entered into noncooperating plea agreements through which they pled guilty to violating the AETA. On February 29, Kevin was sentenced to three years; today [March 22] Tyler was sentenced to three months of time served, six months of home detention and six months of community confinement. They also have [to pay] $200,000 in restitution.

Although critical of their actions, during Johnson’s sentencing, Assistant US Attorney Bethany K. Biesenthal described his intentions as “noble,” and today she described Tyler’s beliefs as “a very noble cause.”

Can you talk a bit about how this case falls within the larger push to use the specter of terrorism as a means to further criminalize animal rights work?

Although it may seem ridiculous to charge people with “terrorism” for saving animals from living in barren wire cages and being killed by methods that may include anal electrocution or having their necks snapped, the ridiculousness speaks to what is beneath the surface of this legislation. The AETA was crafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group of corporate power players who write pieces of model legislation that suit their interests, and then ALEC passes off the legislation to members of Congress.

Many members of ALEC are part of the pharmaceutical, Big Ag and other industries that exploit and kill animals for profit — industries that have a huge interest in stopping the actions of animal liberation activists.

To add to the mix, the state uses the label of “terrorism” with a lot of flexibility in order to be able to manipulate public fear based on the state interests of the day, and this context left the label open for ALEC to apply it to animal liberation activists. And so ALEC devised the AETA, legislation not meant so much for prosecuting activists (Kevin and Tyler are among only a handful of people who’ve been charged under the AETA), but to conjure public fear of the animal liberation movement and deter people from getting involved in the movement, let alone from freeing animals from the hell of fur farms.

Can you speak to the history of the tactic of releasing animals from the type of facility that was involved in this case, and what the state response to this tactic has been like, both in the past and at present? Do you think we can expect to see more of this?

The animal liberation movement has a long history of animals being freed from fur farms — thousands and thousands of animals over the years, many of those animals being mink. Although mink on fur farms spend their lives in awful confinement, they are very much wild animals that have not been domesticated by captivity. So when they are freed from fur farms, they are able to adapt to being in the wild and many are able to survive. Additionally, the release of mink and the destruction of breeding cards is a huge economic loss to fur farms, and can even force them to shut down like with the fur farm that Kevin and Tyler visited.

The state has sought prison time for people who are caught for freeing animals, but overall the sentences are not as extreme as people may expect from acts that are labeled “terrorism” — the sentences have ranged from as low as we saw in Tyler’s [case] to time like the few years we see Kevin receive. While activists have of course received more years than that for actions, additional time is usually more in cases that involve arson rather than opening cages.

What’s next for Tyler?

Tyler will spend the next year completing his sentence — first he will spend six months on home detention, and then he will spend six months in community confinement (which means in a halfway house). And of course he will remain connected to his community and continue to do work to help animals.

Is there anything Tyler and his supporters would like people to know about this case that may have been lost in the media shuffle?

Their case should be a reminder to us all that — in addition to showing solidarity with the animals — we have to show each other love and support in the face of state repression. One of the best ways to fight back against government and corporate efforts to stop activism is to show them that we will unite in struggle and never back down from the fight for animal liberation. We must keep organizing, keep protesting, keep resisting and keep fighting.

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