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Jan 8, 16

Building Capacity, Embracing Repression: Interview with No New Animal Lab

Originally posted to It’s Going Down

The questions of building capacity through struggle and also how to deal with repression that we know comes from radical action and organizing are two central conversations revolutionary autonomous movements need to be having in the current period. One such group attempting to do this is the No New Animal Lab campaign. Since the Green Scare, the group contends that the animal liberation and ecological defense movement has by and large been dismantled and the small forces that are left have been consolidated by NGOs and non-profits. Rejecting this top-down model, No New Animal Lab is seeking instead to rebuild the animal liberation movement by generating capacity around a campaign to stop the construction of an underground animal research lab. Learning from past groups such as the Stop Huntington Animal Cruelty (SHAC) campaign, the group is making headway with planned large scale actions happening in the coming weeks, and has already pulled off a string of actions and a nationwide tour. While we encourage everyone to get involved in the campaign, we feel like the lessons, conversations, and questions generated around this interview should gain a wide audience from people involved in a wide variety of struggles. We also strongly encourage people to give the interview with NNAL by the Final Straw a listen, if you haven’t already

IGD: Can you start off by telling us about the campaign, the key players involved, the goals of the campaign, and also a brief history of what types of actions have already happened up until now?

NNAL: No New Animal Lab is a pressure campaign to stop the University of Washington (UW) and its general contractor, Skanska USA, from building an underground animal research lab.

Skanska is the primary target of the campaign. Its role in construction provides a weak, but essential, link in project development. Construction management is required for UW, but Skanska is not particularly invested in this project out of the dozens and dozens it manages—amounting to billions in revenue—across the U.S. Skanska is also one of the largest construction companies in the world, in terms of operating revenue, and is publicly traded on stock markets. That means that Skanska is vulnerable to shareholder perception, disruption of profit making, and public and client opinion. Targeting Skanska opens up grassroots campaigning to the capitalist market, which can be very dynamic for developing effective strategies.

UW is also a target, but it has a high degree of investment in the project, which makes it a less strategic target for the campaign. Campaign pressure against the UW is intentionally narrowly focused on University leadership—President, Provost, Vice Provost, and the Board of Regents—those have decision-making power and who are accountable to public image rather than the animal researchers who lobbied them to approve the lab construction. A key component of pressure against the UW is to let some sunlight in on how the UW operates (with the leadership essentially acting as puppets for the animal researchers who stand to profit from the grant funding that a new lab could bring) and to let the public see the self-interest that guides corrupt decision-making.

The campaign is made up of a grassroots network of animal liberation advocates and supporters. 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.

IGD: In past interviews, people involved in the campaign have talked about using it as a way to build capacity within radical movements. How are you doing this? Can you talk about what building capacity means and why it is important? In what ways do radical social movements now, in your opinion, fail at building capacity in their struggles? In what ways do you think we could turn this around? How can we move beyond just moving from one thing to the next and build a material force?

NNAL: No New Animal Lab refuses to engage with the existing infrastructure of animal advocacy in the U.S. The animal “rights” movement’s capacity is structured around large NGOs, which siphon grassroots resources through intensive branding, fundraising, and control of the dialogue surrounding animal rights issues. The capacity to be an effective movement exists; it is just vertically organized to prop up nonprofits. Utilizing their resources—their posters, their flyers, their slogans, their narratives, their politics—only strengthens the framework and further impedes the movement’s ability to build something different.

So we reject it. We work with a network of activists with shared politics and analysis. The campaign was built upon a foundation of face-to-face relationships (in contrast with social media-based relationships), radical coalitions, and mutual support and solidarity. And when it came time to organize a campaign across a network of radical animal liberation activists, we already had the blueprint. We develop our own narratives and critical thought, work with great designers for original art and design work, print our own literature and newsletters, and we support those in the network doing the same. We don’t require NNAL events to be branded with NNAL materials. This is where local and regional organizers matter. That is a way to build capacity in a horizontal way.

The momentum of struggle is usually stifled by one of two things: political repression (which most radical organizers attempt to be acutely aware of) and assimilation or cooptation (which more subtly erodes capacity by reorganizing it in ways that are acceptable to the structures of power and the need to increase funding). Cooptation creates pressure release valves through diluted and obscured forms of advocacy and politics.

In contrast, building effective capacity necessarily means horizontal organizing—grassroots networks, coalition politics, solidarity, and anti-oppression. Those are pillars of this campaign, and we have been using the campaign as a vehicle to reinforce them. We focus on networked actions, organizing tours, trainings and workshops—all things that help to build capacity from the ground up and make for a movement that is more resistant to the temptation to sell out or to the risk of collapsing under repression.

IGD: In your interview with the Final Straw, you mention several times how the Green Scare has impacted radical movements, but also that NNAL wants to get away from living in fear of that repression. Can you talk more in depth about this? How did the radical movements respond to the Green Scare? What lessons should be learned from these responses?

NNAL: After the AETA, the SHAC7, and the Green Scare—the culmination of “terrorization”—the animal liberation movement struggled to regain footing and a sense of direction. Look at the contrast between now and even 15 years ago: vegan advocacy and education has risen out of the ashes of a movement organized around support for diversity of tactics, underground resistance, and pressure campaigns. 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.

Collectively, our movement response has actually served the interests of the State. Our obsession with our own repression and the fallacies that we construct about undoing it have become epicenters of fear, misinformation, and misdirection. The impact has arguably been the consolidation of manageable and neutralized activism, consumer politics, and the disappearance of effective organizing. Lacking a substantive critique of State power or capitalism, our insular organizing has fallen short of actually resisting the roots of repression. Instead we built on our preconceived notions of exceptionalism, turning out stagnant tactics and vegan-washing from the vacuum of solidarity.

The animal liberation movement needs to understand that “terrorism,” as well as criminality, is a construction—a function of power. In regard to animal enterprises, underground direct action such as releasing animals or damaging property are extremely effective at disrupting profits. Similarly, the diversity of tactics utilized in campaigns like SHAC (which we model NNAL after) also inserted themselves into the market, becoming risk factors for the entire industry despite the fact that only a minority of activity was illegal or underground. Yet the State’s narrative for both is underpinned by anti-terrorist rhetoric, because they are only concerned with criminalizing, ostracizing, and condemning effective resistance and dissent—not animal activism, not mink releases, not home demos, not broken windows, and certainly not something as inane as “compassion.”

We have to deconstruct the very word “terrorism,” to not let it remain the monster that it has been. It’s a word that the State uses to apply to whatever it currently wants people to fear, and we can’t fall into that trap. If the State is going to try to scare us out of advocating for liberation and breaking open cages, then we need to respond by building up a stronger defense—organize across movement lines, show solidarity with others who experience State repression, and prove to the State that their attempts to stifle dissent will only be met with a more committed fight back. Their repression should be our motivation, our reminder of how desperately critical it is that we organize effective resistance.

IGD: In the same interview, you discussed how repression pushed people off the streets and back into lifestyle or consumer politics. In many ways, this mirrors the rise and fall of many other movements; the crushing of the Occupy camps comes to mind. What are your thoughts about how radical social struggles can overcome this rise and fall motion from repression? How can we be ready before repression comes our way, as it inevitably will?

NNAL: Repression is part of the landscape. It’s not something to be avoided, but we can do a much better job of navigating it once we know it’s there and understand how it works. This is a tricky thing for animal activists to get. We seem to think that repression is our novelty, our burden because we have heralded ourselves as the most progressive, compassionate people on the planet. Repression is so much more than targeted legislation or increased arrests. For marginalized communities, repression is part of their daily reality and their material lives. It is not elective. For animal advocates, it is. We choose to organize, to protest, and to associate with other animal advocates. We can walk away. We are not the ones suffering in captivity, being cut open in the name of science, or being skinned alive in the name of fashion. Ours is one of solidarity, so we experience repression as this contingency and departure. We can easily divorce from advocacy, but so many cannot divorce from their lives, struggles, families, and communities.

Rather than resist the tangible impacts of repression, we should strive to understand the context that these dynamics are set against. We have to normalize repression as a part of effective organizing…but we’ve so far struggled to do this.

The animal “rights” movement doesn’t understand the nature of repression, so we don’t really know how to prepare for and organize in spite of it. If we can actually understand its inevitability as a part of challenging the status quo, then we can traverse the social and political landscape of advocacy and resistance. So we have to normalize repression. Until then, our talk about solidarity is almost meaningless. Solidarity doesn’t exist in a vacuum, yet we are perfectly fine with pretending that animal advocacy does.

That’s the narrative contained in “green is the new red”, “compassion is not terrorism”, or “activism is not terrorism”—mantras that the movement offers as supposed resistance to the normalization. We read our own history—from inception to repression—as insular phenomena. At best, this isolates us from our context, our potential allies, and ourselves while erasing the specific oppressions and repressions faced by many other communities as aspects of their realities. At worst, we actually reinforce the State’s narrative about terrorism and criminality, and its power to violently act on those definitions, by legitimizing the idea that terrorism exists but that it’s not us…completely ignoring that terrorism is manufactured by those at the top of power structures, and we need to stop perpetuating the dynamics set up by those at the top.

We cannot escape repression. Rather, embracing and understanding it is our best defense.

IGD: From groups fighting fascists to fracking, many could benefit from the models that have been used by the animal liberation movement. Why strategies do you think could be employed in a wide variety of struggles?

NNAL: We refer to our model as “pressure campaigning.” Although animal “rights” campaigns in recent decades have done a lot to develop the pressure campaign model, and have even inspired that framework outside of AR circles post-SHAC, pressure campaigns themselves are the products of community organizing beyond the animal liberation movement. Despite the specific terminology, the model extends at least as far back as the 1970s, into labor, anti-racist, and civil rights organizing in the South. The Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU) campaign against J.P. Stevens really laid the strategic and tactical foundation for confronting large corporations through grassroots efforts. In the 1990s, the anti-sweatshop and anti-globalization campaigning against Nike illustrated the major economic effect that corporate campaigns can have if organized strategically against the accumulation of capital.

Pressure campaigning is about challenging power and capital. The strategy is to leverage pressure against very powerful institutions by 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. Because nearly everything is tied to these oppressive systems, this strategy is potentially useful across a wide variety of movements.

By their nature, pressure campaigns are susceptible to backlash through criminalization, litigation (SLAPPs), and shifts in the market. Pressure is easily ruptured and absorbed if channeled in repetitious and monotonous ways, through narrowly defined strategy and tactics. Corporations can shift capital and investments, file for injunctions against organizers, or lobby for laws targeted against campaigns. Law enforcement agencies can criminalize organizers and place them under surveillance. That is the playing field. The best way to navigate these dynamics is for a campaign to invest in a diversity of tactics, and to explicitly build an architecture in which underground direct action compliments other tactics and the overall strategy. As an extension of that, pressure campaigns should have solid security practices, legal support infrastructure, and a framework of prisoner support.

As an important footnote, a common conflation exists between radical pressure campaigning and long-term anti-capitalist organizing. Although pressure campaigns are usually rooted in anti-capitalist analysis, they are not prefigurative in their approach. Pressure campaigns do not actually challenge capitalism itself, instead exploiting market dynamics for political leverage by disrupting processes of accumulation, the threat of which would not exist without the capitalist system. So they have limitations beyond fighting specific institutions embedded in a global capitalist society.

IGD: Many have discussed at length the problems of a demand-based strategy in regards to struggle. What is your take in regards to the work that the campaign is involved in?

NNAL: Critiques of demand-based approaches are largely semantic, though there are definitely some material issues to be parsed out from the rhetoric. This was actually one of the primary discussion points during the To Change Everything Tour, when we shared space with them at Burning Books in Buffalo. Crimethinc attempts to offer a comprehensive critique in the essay, “Why We Don’t Make Demands.”

There is a lot to say about “demands,” and there is some truth to the discourse. It is true that State power and capital, through its NGO proxies, is able to co-opt and assimilate movements. But it’s speculative to conflate seeking substantive gains with that cooptation. These critiques are creating a false dichotomy between long-term efficacy and prefiguration on the one hand, and short-term campaigning and setting material goals on the other. Although a vast amount of advocacy work fits within this dichotomy, and is rightly critiqued for being ineffective and legitimizing oppressive institutions, campaigns or struggles that use “demands” are not necessarily subject to those pitfalls. Criticisms of “demand-based” strategies are set up as straw-man arguments. It presumes that short-term gains are centered by social movements, therefore they are disconnected from the long-term visions, which are the last anchors of radicalism, and easily subjected to co-optation and the reification of power.

We can look to examples that delegitimize this position. No One Is Illegal is a great example. NOII operates out of a very radical prefigurative politics—embodied in the name itself, in rhetoric such as, “Canada Is Illegal”, in acknowledgements of occupied indigenous land, and in their mission statement: “we strive and struggle for the right to remain, the freedom to move, and the right to return.” NOII could hardly be said to be ineffective or impotent. On the contrary, they have been incredibly effective and have garnered the broad alliance-based support of the radical left, First Nations, migrant workers, refugees, anti-capitalists, feminists, and the queer community, much to the dismay of Canadian and European governments.

No One Is Illegal organizes campaigns, through which they achieve very real, impactful, and meaningful victories. Status For All, Access Without Fear, and Abolish Security Certificates are all examples of campaigns that utilize a diversity of tactics and exploit the systematics of state institutions to make substantive and material gains for migrant workers, refugees, and asylum seekers, while simultaneously challenging the system of border imperialism. NOII makes demands, both impossible and realistic, to prefigure a world of liberation and self-determination while achieving victories that are sometimes the difference between life and death. Not making those demands, out of abstractions of ideology, can only be understood through the lens of privilege.

Campaigns do not negate radical visions. Organized properly, 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.

IGD: Getting out of set “scene” is a goal for many radical movements. In what ways has No New Animal Labs come up against this and succeeded or failed?

NNAL: The animal advocacy “scene” is fraught with limitations and problematic elements. In the last decade or so, it seems the only interfaces for the “movement” have been donation drives for large NGOs, social media and viral marketing, vegan education, and, most disturbingly, vegan capitalism. So under the banner of veganism, the “scene” provides cover for some egregious players who shore up support for anything from Israeli occupation, land theft, border militarization, criminalization of undocumented migrants, exploitation of produce workers, anti-black racism, and incursions on indigenous sovereignty. Unfortunately, the specific examples are almost endless, but that’s another questions for another time.

So, as a campaign and as animal liberation organizers, we do out best to distance ourselves from the scene through our organizing approach. We focus on building horizontal networks, coalitions with communities outside the traditional realm of animal advocacy, solidarity with other struggles, and fostering an anti-oppression praxis. Hopefully No New Animal Lab can act as a model for the movement to organize around, displacing the tired, ineffective, and frankly fucked up tendencies of the old “scene.” Given the state of the world, it is really imperative that animal liberation be entirely reframed through the lens of anti-capitalist and anti-colonial resistance, shedding the Eurocentric and potentially oppressive framework of animal “rights” as it has been conceived over the last century. That’s certainly the goal.

IGD: You all did a US tour around the same time that Crimethinc was doing their ‘To Change Everything‘ tour. What was something that you took from touring the US? What did you learn on your trip?

NNAL: Touring is such a great avenue for movement building. Touring can be a bunch of protests. Touring can be a series of workshops. Touring can be networking meetings. In our case, this last summer’s No New Animal Lab Tour was all of the above.

This is not the first time that we’ve done tours. 2014’s Fight or Flight Tour, a collaborative project of The Bunny Alliance (which has since folded into other projects), Resistance Ecology, and the Earth First! Journal was what laid the foundation for the new networking project and more specifically the No New Animal Lab campaign.

Both tours were windows into the state of the animal liberation movement. It’s not pretty. It’s disheartening to see a once vibrant movement so fragmented, both geographically and generationally; so disproportionately invested in social media; so stifled by its own myths and misunderstandings about repression; so dislocated from the land; despite claiming an interconnected understanding of nonhuman equality, falling so short of understanding the systemic origins of mass animal captivity, suffering, and exploitation on this continent; and so willing to sacrifice the most marginalized and vulnerable human communities for perceived gains for animals, handed down from state power.

But the tours are also amazing. There are so many really great folks that we’ve met on the road and built strong on-going relationships with, and a lot of promising things are emerging across the country for animals. There are a lot of organizers with really solid politics, who practice coalition building and solidarity, who organize in spite of the specter of the Green Scare. But the overall state of the movement is still embodied in those disconcerting observations. It’s fodder though, fodder for building something real, something that actually challenges animal enterprises as manifestations of a long history of land theft and occupation, settler colonialism, and brutal capitalist exploitation. So tours have been a bit of a double-edged sword; the movement just needs to identify it and learn how to use it. Then we can do some damage.


IGD: What can people expect from the campaign in the coming future? What big actions are coming up and how can people plug into the campaign?

NNAL: January 15-17, join us in New York for our upcoming mass convergence, #StormSkanska: Swarm New York, which we are co-organizing with New York City Animal Defense League. Skanska USA is headquartered in Manhattan and many of their most important and influential executives live in the surrounding areas, including the President and CEO Richard Cavallaro. Previously, our focus for mass action has been in Seattle, targeting the University of Washington. But as the campaign against Skanska has increasingly become the focus of energy and resources, it was inevitable that it would escalate towards masses swarming the sanctuary of these indifferent, power-hungry, capitalist executives—New York. This will be our most important public action to date, so if you are capable, do everything that you can join us. Do not willingly miss this event.

There are a lot of ways to plug into the campaign. We have targets listed on our website, even providing an interactive map of Skanska locations through the country. Organize a protest at an office, organize an action, write letters to UW and Skanska, share and follow us on social media. We regularly share and post ways to get involved—protests, fundraisers, online and phone actions, etc. Our website lists upcoming events. Contact organizers locally. Get in touch with us if you want help starting something fresh. We offer trainings in anything from legal (“know your rights”) information to campaign research and development.

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.

IGD: Thanks so much and good luck in New York!

Check out No New Animal Labs here and here.

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