World Week for Laboratory Animals is upon us. There are a number of protests and events happening – not least the World Day for Animals in Laboratories march in Manchester tomorrow – but no-one could deny the movement here is a shadow of what it was 10 or 20 years ago. This will be reflected both in the low turnout – in the hundreds instead of thousands or tens of thousands – and the dearth of grassroots campaigning.
Britain used to be in the vanguard of anti-vivisectionism with enormously well organised and supported campaigns like the ones against Boots the Chemist, laboratory animal breeders such as Hillgrove, Shamrock and Newchurch, the Oxford University Lab and, most famously, Huntingdon Life Sciences. Success in closing down some of those animal hellholes led to a massive state crackdown with harassment, intimidation, arrests and imprisonment. We now know there was covert repression too with unprecedented surveillance and use of police infiltrators and informants.
As has already been documented on this blog, repression has left the movement battered and bewildered. Britain is no longer at the forefront of the struggle against animal experimentation. That mantle has now passed to the USA and No New Animal Lab, a campaign to stop the University of Washington and its general contractor, Skanska, from building an underground animal research lab.
America has itself undergone widespread repression, especially with Operation Backfire, the FBI’s attempt to dismantle radical eco and animal rights groups, which began in 2005 and has been dubbed the Green Scare.In an article on the earthfirst.org newswire in January called Interview with No New Animal Lab: Building Capacity, Embracing Repression, the people behind No New Animal Lab (NNAL) explain how it is seeking “to rebuild the animal liberation movement by generating capacity around a campaign to stop the construction of an underground animal research lab.”
No New Animal Lab is an overarching strategy and narrative, but those who actually engage in the campaign are autonomous groups and individuals who use a diversity of tactics, set their own timelines, and organize their own actions. The campaign has seen direct action on the construction site, home demonstrations against executives, banner drops, multiple mass demonstrations, protests at shareholder meetings, protests at corporate offices, and additional creative and spontaneous actions. The campaign is a bit over a year old now, and has been escalating steadily since day one with participation growing immensely.
NNAL refuses to engage with the existing animal rights movement because it is dominated by large NGOs who “siphon grassroots resources through intensive branding, fundraising, and control of the dialogue surrounding animal rights issues.” They are highly critical of existing animal advocacy which they describe as assimilation or co-option:
The movement has lost much of its horizontal network of grassroots radical groups; it has been replaced by a few large nonprofit organizations, which scale success with donations and the distribution of vegan recipe books. Resources have been reorganized vertically. Dissent has been assimilated into the nonprofit industrial complex. Substantive challenges to animal enterprises have been largely quelled
They are equally critical of certain grassroots developments such as the rise of social media and viral marketing, vegan education, and, “most disturbingly, vegan capitalism”. This they say “provides cover for some egregious players who shore up support for anything from Israeli occupation, land theft, border militarisation, criminalisation of undocumented migrants, exploitation of produce workers, anti-black racism, and incursions on indigenous sovereignty.”
The movement has “lacked a substantive critique of State power or capitalism, our insular organizing has fallen short of actually resisting the roots of repression.” The solution , unexpectedly, is to embrace and understand what repression is. Animal rights activists have seen themselves as exceptional and repression as “our novelty, our burden”. For other groups in society it is part of their daily reality, not a choice to be made. The model of struggle used is “pressure campaigning”, challenging power and capital:
Using a diversity of tactics to disrupt the systems that the institutions depend on. So pressure is applied at particular points in the system—executive decision, economic investment, capital accumulation. The strategy strings together the most vulnerable points into a coherent game plan, and the tactics exploit them relentlessly.
Although SHAC was probably the best known example of pressure campaigning in animal rights, NNAL say ” pressure campaigns themselves are the products of community organizing beyond the animal liberation movement” and give instances going back as far as the 1970s in labour, anti-racist, and civil rights organizing in the South as well as more recent examples such as anti-sweatshop campaigns like the one against Nike.
Movements can be co-opted and assimilated by power structures and hierarchies and but NNAL maintains that does not have to be the case and gives No One is Illegal as an example of one which has achieved “very real, impactful, and meaningful victories.” When immediate short term demands are made, they should be “iterations of those visions, of the world we struggle for. Campaigns should be specific instances of resistance, set with timelines, goals, and yes, demands, in concert with the background of struggles against entire systems of oppression.”
NNAL believes in reaching out and building cross-movement solidarity. Its origins lie in 2014’s Fight or Flight Tour with the The Bunny Alliance, Resistance Ecology, and the Earth First! Journal. Last year’s No New Animal Lab Tour saw its rise as the number one grassroots AR campaign. In January 2016 it held a #StormSkanska: Swarm New York because Skanska’s headquarters are in Manhattan and many of their executives live nearby. In March there was the Storm Skanska: Fracture Their Finances week of action, in which investors such as Alecta and BlackRock were targeted.
There are many ways of connecting with the campaign, with targets listed on the website, including an interactive map of Skanska locations through the country. NNAL wants protests and demonstrations, letter writing, online and phone actions and fundraising. They also offer training in legal (“know your rights”) awareness to campaign research and development. Finally they add:
Diversity of tactics—that is the key. If you want to act, you do not need to wait. Just follow the campaign strategy and think creatively about what compliments all of the other activity and organizing. The campaign is an umbrella for tactical diversity and creative action. So apply pressure. Take action. Be smart. Be safe.
NNAL is the most positive development AR has seen for years. It is bold, decisive, confrontational and clever. Clearly it’s derived from the “focused campaigns” of SHAC, Speak and the like but it transcends their one-dimensional ideology of “we never give in and we always win” with an altogether more perceptive and nuanced political and social analysis. This is an animal rights group which sits squarely within anarchist and anti-capitalist narratives of the radical left.
It recognises that repression works on two levels: overtly through raids, arrests and prison and the like but also in more covert and subtle ways in which activists are absorbed into power structures and hierarchy. In class terms this is how the working class was “bought off” by capitalism and therefore split into warring factions – each competing for their share of the pie – instead of united fighting the bosses.
Animal rights here in the UK and in America has been fractured and divided in the last 10 years. The retreat from radical activism in the face of the state’s crackdown created a vacuum which has been filled by a myriad of at times competing and antagonistic interests. Momentum and unity has stalled. And into this mix you have to throw social media too. There are no easy answers to our problems in the face of a movement that is battered and demoralised. But in order to navigate our way out of the troubles, we have to look for new ways of doing things. No New Animal Lab might be such an approach.