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08.13.08

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Phaedra

Photograph by Traci Hukill
Soy-snacking Peacenik : Erik Marcus, editor/publisher of vegan.com, isn't buying the violence-to-end-violence approach taken by some animal rights activists.

The Misunderstood Vegan

Last week's attacks on UCSC researchers revealed faultlines in the already complex animal rights community.

By Paul Davis


Vegan or animal rights activist? Firebombings or arson? Domestic terrorism or protest?

When people start throwing around this kind of loaded language, it's no longer a debate over semantics. As soon as police and university officials declared last week's attacks on the property of two UCSC professors to be acts of domestic terrorism, the door for nuanced discussion closed. Incendiary rhetoric was lobbed back, most notably by Jerry Vlasak, MD, of the North American Animal Liberation Press Office, who wrote in response to the attacks, "UC-Santa Cruz may consider themselves an institution of higher education, but they are also an institution of animal torture and killing. This is historically what happens whenever revolutionaries begin to take the oppression and suffering of their fellow beings seriously, whether human or nonhuman. It's regrettable that certain scientists are willing to put their families at risk by choosing to do wasteful animal experiments in this day and age."

It's difficult to tease out nuanced positions amid such hard-line declarations. Press coverage has played fast and loose with terminology and facts. In a 24-hour news cycle fueled by innuendo, loaded terms such as "terrorism," "firebombing" and "veganism" become easily intertwined. Among pundits and columnists, bloggers and readers, A plus B does not need to necessarily equal C to suggest intent or association. If A, B and C reside in the same few column inches together, that's good enough.

Despite the media coverage and poorly sourced editorials, for many vegans or animal rights activists the attacks are alarming on a number of levels. As animal rights activists consider last week's attacks, they fear the effect the fallout will have upon the nonextremist elements of the animal rights community.

Not My Battle
One of the strongest local critics of the actions last week is Erik Marcus, author of Meat Market: Animals, Ethics and Money and the publisher of Vegan.com. Marcus, who lives in Bonny Doon, is frustrated by the way the attacks have muddled the intent of the animal rights community and drawn attention away from its core issues. "These idiots are doing unimaginable harm to animals," he says

Conservative bloggers have been pointed in their critique of the animal rights movement, asking why the community has not openly condemned the attacks on UCSC professors. The rhetoric calls to mind post-9/11 demands for all Americans of Arab descent to condemn the actions of a handful of Islamic extremists. And many individuals and groups have, in fact, responded in the past week. Marcus notes, "I was delighted to see the Humane Society of the United States offer a $2,500 reward for information leading to the conviction of the arsonists."

The Humane Society's gesture has earned it condemnation on both sides of the debate. The Center for Consumer Freedom, a well-heeled lobbyist group that serves as an allegedly independent mouthpiece for corporate benefactors including Philip Morris, Tyson Foods and the Coca Cola Company, fired back with a withering yet predictable press release. "Nobody should be fooled by HSUS's paltry gesture," it read. "While pretending to be part of the solution, the group continues to be a significant part of the problem--an over-zealous social movement bent on extending legal rights to animals, whether or not thinking people like the consequences. The entire community of Santa Cruz is learning this week what can happen when human beings resist the sort of evolution the animal rights community has planned for them. And it's not pretty."

The CCF's argument has enjoyed an unexpected level of play on anarchist blogs and forums, where the response is considered an example of why the Humane Society's tactics are ineffective. On animal rights blog Green Is the New Red (www.greenisthenewred.com/blog/), independent journalist and civil liberties watchdog Will Potter writes, "In many ways, Feedstuffs and CCF are absolutely right. This is a turning point in history. Not just for the animal rights movement, but for a country showing frightening parallels to the worst eras of government repression. The question, then, is this: Should we all, like HSUS, try to buy ourselves a little time? Or should we step up and fight the New McCarthyists head on?"

On infoshop.org, commenter Lawrence responds, "This should come as no surprise to anyone. The Humane Society is concerned with the stewardship of animals as resources and/or property (whether lab animals or potential pets), and not with animal liberation. They are a thoroughly bourgeois, law-abiding outfit with government funding."

Other activists consider hard-line tactics injurious to the movement. "This reward underscores the fact that the core of the animal protection movement regards tactics like this as immoral and counterproductive," Marcus says of the Humane Society's reward, adding, "If I had any idea who perpetrated this act, I would be on the phone with the FBI in a heartbeat."

Stephen Kaufman, chair of the Cleveland-based Christian Vegetarian Association, is similarly direct in his condemnation. "As you might expect, we are appalled by this action," Kaufman says. "Our movement's principles involve love, compassion, and peace.Unfortunately, in any large movement there is always the possibility that one or more people might violate such principles."

Marcus argues that the attacks on the homes of the UCSC professors have drawn attention away from what he considers a more urgent concern, and levels blame directly at the perpetrators.

"Thanks to this incident, it's now harder than ever to hold the university publicly accountable for its support of factory farming," he says. "If you want to eliminate obscene amounts of needless animal cruelty, the logical place to begin is not at the university's research labs, but at its dining halls. I've been working for the past 18 months to try to get UC-Santa Cruz to abandon serving factory farmed eggs. ... How am I supposed to put pressure on the university to stop sourcing eggs from factory farms when these lunatic arsonists are grabbing headlines?"

It's in the Papers, It Must Be True
There are those who suggest the attacks could be a COINTELPRO-like act of counterintelligence sabotage. On indybay.org, commenter Trust No One claims, "It's quite typical of authorities to drive a wedge between other left-wing groups and so-called fringe groups with heated rhetoric," a response that struck a chord with other commenters on the sometimes conspiratorially minded independent media news forum. On a sister indymedia.org site, a commenter wrote, "This is bullshit--either the government did this, or these activists were out of line." Though such uncorroborated accusations are the Internet's stock in trade, they do illustrate the level of distrust with which the animal rights community regards the authorities investigating the attacks.

Perhaps one of the most concerning aspects of this case for local animal rights activists and vegans is the slipshod reporting that has run in Bay Area newspapers, much of which has been picked up by newspapers nationwide. Early in the news cycle, much media attention was directed toward the Animal Liberation Front, though the ALF has consistently denounced actions that could potentially risk lives. Groups and establishments with no professed political allegiance were referred to in news reports as vegan institutions. One was Caffe Pergolesi, where fliers endorsing violence against UCSC professors initially surfaced. During a KTVU 2 report, the cafe was pointedly referred to as being a vegan institution, and staffers' denouncements of the act were arranged into quick sound bites that suggested some level of sympathy with the attackers. The level of misreporting prompted owner Karl Heiman to issue a press release categorically denouncing the acts, even though the cafe had been proactive in its cooperation with the authorities from the outset.

Such minor points generate misinformed punditry that amplifies a narrative that may not bear any resemblance to the facts. In the editorial "Firebombing shows the danger of domestic terror" in the Aug. 5 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle, the community of Santa Cruz, along with the animal rights movement, was suggested as being sympathetic to the views of the attackers. In the editorial, the Chronicle stated, "... where is the outrage, and where are the wars to protect scientists like Feldheim? ... The citizens of Santa Cruz and the city's elected officials need to step up and condemn this sort of violence." The editorial goes on to reiterate misreported allegations, asking, "Why didn't the Santa Cruz coffee shop remove the threatening animal-rights pamphlet that listed the names and addresses of 13 researchers ... and call the police," though Pergolesi did precisely that upon discovery of the fliers. It also equates the Animal Liberation Press Office with the Animal Liberation Front, though the two groups have long argued over tactics that threaten human life. (The relationship between ALF and Vlasak's Animal Liberation Press Office is difficult to parse; the two openly disagree over whether violence toward humans is justified, but ALF's website links to ALPO under the rubric "press office.")

Erik Marcus, a former journalist himself, is not surprised by the portrayal of the animal rights community and vegans in the press. "My impression is that [the media coverage] has been appallingly inept, and the reason for that is very simple: unlike many important political issues that emerge, this is one that does not attract beat reporters," Marcus says. "I think the problem is that the people reporting on this story have no background in any of these issues, and as a result I think the coverage is appallingly simple-minded. I don't think this is a case of reporters seeking to mislead, it's just not part of their beat."

It's these considerations that alarm activists like Marcus, who notes, "The sort of activism I do is based on making good relationships with people." Pointing to the press circus that has arisen in the wake of the attacks, Marcus directs blame at the perpetrators, and reiterates that he believes they have done far more harm to the community than they anticipate. "They are distracting focus from indefensible animal abuses that UC-Santa Cruz perpetuates on an ongoing basis," he says. "They've made the work of legitimate animal protection advocates unimaginably harder."


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