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Andy Stepanian - Interview March 2010

Andy Stepanian is one of six activists known as the SHAC 7 who were convicted under the federal Animal Enterprise Protection Act for their involvement in the Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) campaign in the U.S. SHAC's target was the notorious animal testing lab Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS), which uses roughly 70,000 animals per year for product-testing. The strategic campaign effectively threatened the financial stability of one of the world's most profitable research laboratories, which brought it to the attention of the federal government. The FBI launched an intense investigation that landed six activists in federal court, accused of charges of conspiracy. As a result, more aggressive legislation specifically targeting animal activism, the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, was passed in 2006 to safeguard animal enterprises in the future.


Andy and friend on beach

While no living creature was harmed by their actions, the U.S. SHAC activists were sentenced to one to six years in federal prison. To date, all but one defendant have been released. Lauren Gazzola was released to a halfway house last Wednesday. Kevin Kjonaas remains incarcerated. Their case is currently under appeal.

Andy was released a year ago and now works as a publicist. He will be giving a rare public talk about his personal experience this coming Tuesday at NYU, "Muzzling A Movement: Free Speech, Animal Protection and Terrorism Prosecutions," with the author Dara Lovitz. Cat Clyne caught up with Andy at Atlas Cafe to check in on how he's been doing and what he's been up to.

In a nutshell, what is next Tuesday's talk about?
Muzzling a Movement is a new book by Dara Lovitz coming out by Lantern Books in September. It covers the breadth of how laws have failed animals. On the prosecutorial end, laws are failing animals in the sense that animal welfare groups that are trying to prosecute animal abusers are facing increased opposition. Laws are also failing animals in the sense that new "designer" legislation is being passed to directly combat animal activism.

Is there One Big Thing you learned about activism from your involvement in the SHAC campaign?
The SHAC campaign opened my eyes to an understanding that capitalism is at the root of so many oppressive systems. Whether it is the way we treat animals, the earth, or women's bodies, each are impacted, often negatively, by capitalism. One of the main reasons why I stayed involved with SHAC is that I felt it was a multi-issue campaign that challenged the public to connect those dots between excused animal abuse and profitable margins. People began to understand that behind every system of oppression there are financial pillars of support. SHAC's main objective was to eliminate the financial support for abusers and watch their system fall in on itself. Because I care about animal rights and veganism that was reason enough to stay involved, but simultaneously I was compelled because of the inspiration it was giving to other movements to challenge capitalism and reinvent their tactics. There was a lot that was not to my benefit by staying involved. But I had equations in my head--it translated into more than just these animals here. I was tired of playing the typical protest game and I wanted to change the board--to recreate and change the rules.

HLS had everything to lose. This campaign was not about concessions, it was about abolition, so of course they were going to put up a fight. In many senses it was analogous to sucker-punching the biggest kid on the playground. But, if our tactics were applied to a campaign that was about concessions, let's make an example of a campaign against child labor or sweatshops: if you apply these tactics with a list of demands for reform, the cost-benefit analysis to dealing with a campaign like this would result in the company capitulating and would show victories across the board. In the case of sweatshops, it's the perfect model.

What is the status of your appeal?
It is approaching the En Banc stage, which is a preliminary round before going to the Supreme Court. In January 2009 we went in front of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals and saw three judges. Now ALL the judges in the region have to review the ruling and give an opinion as to whether or not it should be re-tried. If they do not grant a new trial/hearing, then the alternative is going to the Supreme Court.

Wow. What do you think about that? Is that what you were hoping for?
I was hoping we'd win before reaching the Supreme Court. Some activists are hoping it will go to the Supreme Court and that this will become case law and will be applicable thereafter--that our fight will help other people being prosecuted under the new law (the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act). But we're excited to go the Supreme Court.

Do you think the pursuit and conviction of the SHAC activists has had an effect on animal advocacy in this country?
It fractured the movement and scattered the flock. The government made an example out of people whom their fellow activists could relate to. Every SHAC activist was an individual from a different area of the country and each indictment had a radiating effect on the communities the defendants came from. Trepidation that spread from the prosecution traversed the country and trickled down into activist communities. People were given a choice: to drop out entirely, stay involved and potentially get in trouble, stay involved and scale back their effectiveness, or get even more radical. The government didn't get everything they wanted because the campaign still continues today, however, they did get a large section of the moderate activists to bow out. It chilled speech in many activist campaigns and only radicalized the tenor of irrelevant outlets like the self-described Animal Liberation "Press Office".

However this is far from a doomsday scenario. Activists have recently come back to the movement with renewed zeal and many have internalized the thought that what happened to the SHAC7 isn't going to happen to them--there's a greater chance of being in a car accident than being indicted under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act.

Can you talk about the kinds of activism you're involved with now?
I had a lot of time to plan for the future while away. I still have a lot of questions but I was certain I did not want to be known for the time I spent in prison. If given recognition I wanted it to be for my work--not for some creepy infatuation our movement has with martyrdom. I also repeatedly rolled over a quote in my head (one I heard several times before): "I bet you they'd take us seriously if we had a publicist." This led me to start The Sparrow Project, a grassroots creative publicity agency that braids activism with the arts and popular culture. There are a handful of us working on projects and developing campaigns to publicize and incubate grassroots activism efforts, forward-thinking musicians, writers and artists. This week, with Merch Direct, we launched our line of benefit shirts. The proceeds of each shirt are split between the Sparrow Project and the nonprofit cause it triumphs. We collaborate with upcoming artists and designers to produce the shirts and shoot a video with them. Recently, we were stoked to find that Randy J. Hunt of the design studio Citizen Scholar would partner with Sparrow to shoot a video about designing for social change and would re-work Robert Indiana's Love Park typographic art to say the word "VEGAN". The shirt is already a hit in our online store and benefits Farm Sanctuary.

Sparrow has partnered with the Surfrider Foundation and Clean Ocean Action and local music heros Envy On The Coast to raise awareness and opposition to a proposal to build an artificial island off the coast of New York that would import Liquid Natural Gas. We also teamed up with Special Sauce and the Uganda Skateboard Union to help build and expand a skateboard park in Kampala Uganda to include an adjacent school. We also organized a benefit concert and supplies-drive for victims of the earthquake in Haiti. We have new projects and videos on the way this spring from the amazing Leanne Mai-Ly Hilgart of Vaute Couture and the all-too-eloquent Joshua Katcher ... to name a few. I am also making time to do speaking events like the one this Tuesday and work towards finally finishing the book I wrote while in prison.

Whoa, you are one busy bee! Let's switch gears: Tell me about surfing.
It's my favorite thing to do. I love being in the ocean and at the beach. I like being in the water around sunrise and sunset the most. I like seeing the sun through the curtain of the barrel. Being enveloped in the ocean is like a surreal watercolor painting and I am pretty sure every surfer has a deep connection to those brief moments in the barrel. No matter how many times it is articulated in surf magazines and videos, words always fall short of describing the experience of getting "barreled."

What music are you listening to these days?
Kidz in the Hall, Drake, Sufjan Stevens, and Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth."

What is your ideal meal?
Road's End's Macaroni & Chreese with broccoli in it.

Catch Andy Stepanian and Dara Lovitz at NYU's Law School on Tuesday, March 23. More info: http://sparrowmedia.net. Kevin Kjonaas remains incarcerated. You can support him by writing a letter or donating to his support fund.


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