Andy Stepanian is one of six activists known
as the SHAC 7 who were convicted under the federal
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,
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
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
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
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
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
park in Kampala Uganda to include an adjacent school. We also organized a
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
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.