Black Flag magazine gives space to animal rights

It is unusual for anarchist publications, especially class struggle ones, to give coverage to animal rights. Black Flag, however, has done just that in its most recent issue, no.237 2015/16.  Lessons form a front line: animal rights, edited by Rob Raypresents the story of an activist called Mr J who it describes as being “on the front line of that struggle”. 

There are a few factual errors (the SPEAK victory was at Girton in Cambridge, not Garrington, and it wasn’t in 1998 as suggested but six years later) but overall it gives a good insider’s account of what happened in a decisive period for militant animal rights campaigning and it also tries to look ahead to where the next frontline might be.

This is the first time the article has appeared online. There is an archive of old editions at which goes all the way back to 1976. You can also buy the latest issue from AK Press at (search for Black Flag Issue 237 – it costs £3.00). Black Flag can be found here:

Lessons for a front line: animal rights

For all its many controversies, Britain’s animal rights movement created one of the most militant and effective direct action campaigns of recent times, prompting in turn one of the most comprehensive State crackdowns of recent times.

From its earliest origins in the 1960s-70s, the broad animal rights movement managed to build itself even as its most militant members conducted a campaign of harassment, obstruction and inventive direct action against rural hunts, major companies involved in vivisection, the fur industry and many other areas.

Mr J was on the frontline of that struggle, and in the article below, he talks about how he got involved, what happened as the movement got itself into a position to take down major companies, and how a corporate-government compact eventually conspired to eliminate it.

How did you get involved?

The first thing I did was hunt sabbing in Scotland in 1992, which carried over to Wales when I moved there. I got involved in wider politics then, as the group was involved in a lot of different things. We got alot of abuse at the time so gained confidence to deal with many situations.

In the late ’90s there were the Consort Beagles and Hillgrove Cat Farm campaigns, where a lot of local groups came together. It was an exciting time and there was real strength in numbers. There was an atmosphere that people were up for it. We won those campaigns and thought “we can beat the police here, we do have power and momentum, w~’re ahead of the game.”

We weren’t afraid to be bolshy, we were having running battles with police, pushing them out of the way.

There were moments when the police might try to blockade the road, we would go round the side and fight them in the woodlands. We had these big days of action with hundreds of people and that also meant we were meeting new people all the time, liningup stuff.

Maintaining cells

Covert work was there from the start, animal rights was always quite radical with ALF and the hunt sabs, it was all part of the milieu and just accepted as part of what we could do. Sabbing was really good for finding people, when you’re out against the hunt either you walk the walk or you don’t. People used to say “I’ll save it for the big actions.” No. Show us now. If you can’t do it here, you won’t do it later.

The problem was really learning to be effective, which we mostly did through sab training. There were a few anonymously authored articles which went round too, but mostly it was what we taught ourselves. We also built up good connections going around the country and just doing animal rights campaigning – it fed into green direct action, anti-fascism etc.

The State takes an interest

People have said the honeymoon period was really 1983-85. After that, the police began to build what would become the Animal Rights National Index (ARNI) of names. We had the State – people like Bob Lambert- starting to take a real interest. The corporates were obviously also trying to get intelligence but we don’t how how much direct collusion there was going on between them at this point.

Then there was the Sheffield. Conspiracy trial – what we learned later was that the ARNI went national around then, having previously been the work of regional forces. By 1998 we’d won a lot of battles and big pharma was in uproar after the SPEAK victory at Garrington in Cambridge.

Blair’s. war on AR

It wasn’t until 2004 that Tony Blair met with their bigwigs, heralding the true start of the national response to animal rights. What was to become the Domestic Extremism Unit started at that time.

At this point corporations were under a huge amount of pressure, and they responded with a huge legal attack. The lead law firm, Lawson Cruttenden lodged court cases trying to impose massive exclusion zones.

A government green paper said “we need a co-ordinated response,” people like police officer Anton Setchell got involved and that’s when we really started to feel the hit. People had been sent down before, but it became multiple forms of harassment. We’d do a local stall about animal rights and local cops would show up trying to us down. They’d stand in front of the stall intimidating people away. They’d follow activists around, stalk them at demos, anything to isolate us.

At government level they changed laws to facilitate crackdowns. Harassment legislation was extended to companies after we challenged the idea in court. In SOCPA (sec146-7) they specifically included anti-animal rights rules by banning home demos.

That was specifically to stop us from getting shareholders’ addresses and targeting the communities where they live lived, which was extremely effective.All the cops who used these laws have moved on now, so they’ve fallen out of use but these laws are still on the books, and will be resurrected next time the State needs them.

Police undercovers

We knew they were there, along with corporate spies. It was accepted there would be some, we just couldn’t say who. Because of our long history of direct action though by the time it became critical we had a strong security culture in place. It didn’t stop people getting arrested, but it did reduce the wider damage, and people made fewer mistakes.

It’s harder for them to target activists if they don’t know who they are, and the cell group structure helped people stay free – some through decades of activity.

Lessons learned

It’s worth acknowledging how we evolvedover time – we missed a few tricks which weakened us. There was a problem with how the rest of the left perceived us – as a “single issue group” – and when we did get attacked there was isolation going on.

But equally, while we were good at reaching out on a local level with campaigns we missed reaching out to a national level. But then again we were running a high-powered campaign against big firms, and that was a full-time job in itself – you have to balance priorities.

On the plus side, we found we were able to leverage a lot of people to do small jobs. We didn’t go after you for for A to B marches, we wanted your number so we could call you up. The police struggled with that distributed model of organising.

The next flashpoint: Anti-fracking campaigning

This has the potential to be the next major direct action movement, the next Newbury, with people coming together and forming small, decentralised, effective opposition groups.

At the moment the grassroots are still in charge, but the threat is that Friends of the Earth get in and “take charge.” They’ll disown “bad” actions and kill the movement.

Top tips

  • Get off Face book
  • Talking to people is fundamental, particularly through stalls etc
  • Build in a security culture from the beginning
  • But don’t be paranoid that the State is out to get you – if you start thinking everyone is an undercover they’re paralysed you, andthey’ve won
  • Covert working means not going to demos. Leave that to the public facing groups.
  • Neither condemn nor condone: The State wants to play off “acceptable” activity against direct action.
  • The agenda should be shaped by the grassroots

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