Tuesday, August 19, 2008
When I was younger and watched "The Cosby Show," I thought it was inappropriate that Sondra and Alvin named their twins Nelson and Winnie. Nelson Mandela had been in prison, so obviously he was a harmful criminal, right? I didn't know why he had been in prison, but the fact that he had was enough for me to judge him as a bad person. Later, of course, I discovered that he was imprisoned because he spoke out against apartheid, and my feelings about him changed.
The same process is true regarding my perceptions of the SHAC7. I first came across them in a progressive magazine. I can't remember if I read the story -- if I did, I don't remember doing so -- but I do remember that I thought, "These people are in prison. Why should I care about them?" If one is in prison, one is automatically a horrible person. At least that was my thinking at the time.
Now, though, I know that that's not necessarily true. Yes, many people -- especially murders and rapists who are truly guilty -- deserve to be in prison. (Although I'd like to see more rehabilitation occurring.) But as Will Potter said during the AR2008 session on activist prisoners, political prisoners aren't necessarily guilty.
The SHAC7 are a good example of our warped criminal justice system. Or as Potter said, "It's not a criminal justice system; it's the criminal system." The SHAC7 did not get justice.
As I've written before, the SHAC7 ran a Web site against Huntingdon Life Sciences. They were not involved in criminal activity; they simply had a Web site. And now they are in prison. Odette Wilkens, an attorney who founded the Equal Justice Alliance, announced that Andy Stepanian, one of the SHAC7, had recently been moved to a maximum-security prison, and he's not doing well. A person who simply ran a Web site is now living among the country's most violent criminals. As Potter noted, he's there because of his beliefs.
Similarly, Camille Hankins, a controversial figure even at the conference and an outspoken opponent of vivesection (torturing animals for research), spoke about the Austrian animal-rights activists who were imprisoned in May and still haven't been charged with a crime. Hankins speculated that they were taken into custody because they were planning an international animal-rights conference. One of the people arrested had been organizing a coalition of all animal-rights groups in Austria.
Hankins also said three founders of SHAC (Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty) in Great Britain have been arrested but not charged with crimes. (I don't know how long they've been held.)
Potter also discussed the trend of labeling an animal activist a terrorist. Prosecutors in recent cases of activists being tried for vandalism, for example, have pushed for harsher sentences by tacking on terrorism charges simply because the act was allegedly carried out for the purpose of helping animals. Potter said that when someone is labeled a terrorist, it changes how he is treated in prison. (And that may be why Stepanian is in a maximum-security facility.)
Finally, Potter said that even if we are opposed to direct action, we should still take a stand against labeling activists as terrorists. We should also remember that the activists in prison are real people and shouldn't be treated as martyrs.
Edited to add: I forgot to include Tammy Grimes in this post. She's the founder of Dogs Deserve Better, an organization that opposes chaining dogs. At Thursday night's plenary she showed a video and spoke about her arrest and conviction. She was arrested in 2006 for taking a chained and obviously very ill dog to the vet.
Long story short -- After repeated attempts to have officials come out and look at the dog, Grimes finally did it herself, videotaping what she found. We saw a dog who was too ill to stand. He was lying on the ground, a wide, thick metal brace around his neck, and he was barely able to lift his head. Grimes brought him to the vet and contacted police, offering them her video as evidence of animal cruelty. The police were not interested in it and instead arrested her for theft and receiving stolen property. She was not allowed to show the video at her court case, was found guilty and was sentenced to a $1,700 fine, 300 hours of community service and one-year probation -- all for saving the life of a dog. She's appealing the verdict.
(Photo courtesy of shac7.com.)