Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act: Revisited

Corporate Forces Behind Draconian Law Finally Revealed

In a recent three-part post on, journalist and blogger Will Potter sheds new light on the sneaky, underhanded process that a cadre of animal industry groups used to pass the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) near the end of 2006. Internal documents handed to Potter by an anonymous informant provide evidence that the Animal Enterprise Protection Coalition knew they lacked the necessary political support to push the AETA through congress, so they came up with a plan to pass it under the public radar – and
succeeded. Also included in the formerly clandestine documents is a list of those opposing the legislation, among which are Potter and In Defense of Animals (IDA), the organization that I worked for at the time.

Time Capsule: 2006

As the senior staff writer/editor at IDA immediately before, during and after the AETA's passage, I wrote all of their alerts encouraging activists to fight the bill by urging elected legislators to vote against it. Knowing now that the nefarious forces behind the AETA were secretly monitoring my work gives me a strange sense of retroactive satisfaction. However, I am also freshly reminded of the devastation I felt when the AETA passed, and that our efforts to preserve freedom of speech were so resoundingly squelched.

Being perhaps somewhat more idealistic about the democratic process then than I am now, I thought we would defeat the sweeping bill whose wording could potentially criminalize Constitutionally-protected protests against industries that profit from animal suffering and death. Sadly, I was wrong about our prospects for victory. But on the bright side, I was also wrong about something else: the impact that the AETA would ultimately have on the animal protection movement.

Flash Forward: 2008

To the best of my knowledge, the AETA has not yet been used to prosecute any animal advocates for engaging in traditional forms of protest (such as leafleting, boycotting or investigating businesses that perpetrate animal exploitation). Nor, seemingly, has the law "chilled" animal protection activists into inaction by causing them to fear arrest for taking a principled stand on behalf of non-human species. The AETA hasn't even been used, so far as I know, to charge underground animal activists as domestic terrorists.

To be honest, I’m sort of surprised (but heartened) by this, as my ultra-suspicious self of two years ago had more than half-expected to become the target of specialized paramilitary task forces for supposedly threatening the market earnings of powerful commercial syndicates. I vowed to myself back then that I would continue advocating for animals, even in the face of danger. But in reality, nothing changed at all: no pursuit or persecution by law enforcement personnel, no financially-draining lawsuits, no mandatory court appearances forcing me to testify or name names, no prison sentence – no nothing.

Thankfully, my fears turned out in retrospect to be merely part of a paranoid nightmare fueled by six excruciating years of Bush, Inc. reflexively undermining our civil liberties and deliberately pushing dissenters toward the fringes of society – pitting "us" (liberals) against "them" (Republicans) for their own greedy gain. Can’t say I’m disappointed, but then again, I thought at the time that maybe the fact that industry titans were attempting to label mainstream animal rights activists as "terrorists" meant we were an actual threat to the corrupt status quo – and therefore making real progress. I think now, however, that this assumption may have been only half-right: allow me to explain.

The Animal Exploitation Industry's New Fear: Legislative Reform

Judging from recent missives in the pages of meat, dairy and egg industry journals, it seems as though agribusiness insiders are less concerned these days about masked "terrorists" than they are about the impact of the latest bombshell to hit their world: the passage of Proposition 2 in California. This new law will outlaw battery cages for egg-laying hens, gestation crates for pregnant pigs, and veal crates for male calves in the state by 2015, and probably have much wider implications for animal agribusiness across the country in coming years. So it's not surprising that factory farmers are scared they will have to institute major changes in order to survive.

As just one example of the alarm reverberating across the spectrum of factory farm producers in the wake of Prop 2, reported that Steve Kopperud, VP of Policy Directions, Inc. warned attendees at last month's Texas Cattle Feeders Association Annual Convention against "allow(ing) idiots to dictate policy on how (meat producers) operate." Let's consider, for a moment, the context in which this statement must be placed, which is that Prop 2 won with a whopping 63% of the vote: a considerable majority in the largest agriculture state in the nation. Vegans, vegetarians and animal rights activists comprised only a very small proportion of those who voted in favor of Prop 2, so it would be understandable (statistically speaking, given our diametrically-opposed worldviews) if Kopperud had strictly limited his insults to our camp alone – but he didn't, and really couldn't, because the simple act of voting for Prop 2 essentially amounts to "dictat(ing) policy on how (meat producers) operate." Therefore, in Mr. Kopperud's expert opinion, nearly two-thirds of California voters are basically "idiots" who know so little about food production that they should be prevented from having any say in how farm animals are raised.

Considering that most of the initiative's supporters were meat eaters, Kopperud's brash insolence begs an obvious question: should a self-styled animal agribusiness representative blatantly offend the very consumers who keep his corporate constituents in the black? The fact that Kopperud did so with such insouciance indicates just how flustered industry spokespersons are by our movement's recent focus on motivating voters to pass laws protecting animals from the most egregious abuses, and the trend this signifies for the future.

Perhaps more importantly, Kopperud's distasteful name-calling symbolizes how out of synch animal agribusiness' standard operating procedures are with commonly-held values. The industry unwisely invested more than $9 million in a doomed campaign to stop Prop 2 from passing – vastly outspending its proponents and humiliating themselves in the process with ludicrous advertisements (no longer available online) that unintentionally exposed their true colors. Given that We the People won the battle over Prop 2 by such a wide margin of support, should I feel sheepish about taking some pleasure here in requesting that the real idiots in this debate please stand up?

Democracy In Action

The difference between how we managed to pass Prop 2 and how animal enterprises pushed the AETA through is striking, and represents the extremes of how the political system both works and fails in the modern age. Of course, there are many other contrasting examples of how social justice is upheld and subverted in the law books, and this will certainly not be the last. But the point is that, even if animal agribusiness continues to use deception and coercion to fight us, it won't matter as much as it used to, because established movement strategists are rapidly learning how to work the system in the animals' and the public's favor – and this truly frightens these entrenched economic interests.

Agribusiness conglomerates have, until very recently, operated under the assumption that animal welfare concerns are irrelevant and ignorable. So it makes perfect sense that they are shocked and outraged at suddenly being told what they can and cannot do to the living beings they euphemistically call "production units" (in industry parlance). But when they are done crying foul and making excuses for their bad behavior, we'll see if they've learned their lesson – and whether we need to teach them yet another one before they finally adapt to the changing times.