Andy Stepanian Interview
18 September 2010
Andy Stepanian is a social justice activist, an animal advocate and a publicist from New York. In his early teenage years, Andy found a home on the front lines of civil disobedience & non-violent direct action struggles for earth, animal, and human liberation. Amidst organising protests, anti-war rallies, and anti-globalisation summits, Andy and his friends helped lay the framework for the swelling and vibrant Long Island all-ages music scene.
In 2006, Andy was sentenced to three years in prison for violating a controversial law known as the Animal Enterprise Protection Act. Andy and six others were jailed for their role in a campaign to stop animal testing by the British scientific firm Huntingdon Life Science. They were convicted of using a website to “incite attacks” on those who did business with Huntingdon Life Science. Together, the group became known as the SHAC 7. The SHAC 7 were each sentenced to between 1-6 years in federal prison and were treated by the prosecution as “terrorists”. Andy served 3 years in federal prison; his last 6 months of incarceration were spent in a high security secretive program called The Communications Management Unit. The story of Andy & the SHAC 7 has become the focus of a feature-length documentary by Finngate Pictures expected out in 2011; similarly, a screenplay about Andy & the SHAC 7 has also been acquired by Hollywood giant Lions Gate Pictures.
Currently, Andy writes for the Huffington Post, as well as working as a publicist for Princeton Architectural Press, and in his free time he & his friends run The Sparrow Project, an outfit that provides PR services to social justice, environmental and political activists, musicians, and artists who want to braid relevant social messages with their creative process. He has toured colleges giving lectures on grassroots activism, and has made appearances on the CBS nightly news, Democracy Now, Hannity’s America, and has been the subject of interviews in The LA Times and Reuters.
Most recently The Sparrow Project has partnered artists with charitable causes to develop silk screened shirts to directly benefit the cause to which they are dedicated.
ARZone: When you were a part of SHAC 7 (Stop Huntington Animal Cruelty), would you have done anything different? As the laws have changed, you cannot speak out against certain labs;do you think this is right, and do you think that people like yourself should have gone to jail for protecting the animals?
Andy Stepanian: Good question! I think there were a few tactical choices that I made during those SHAC years that I personally would revise, but I would never change my motives and drive for getting involved. I’d like to believe that I would not be deterred from being involved with the campaign, even if I knew the consequences. I certainly believe that no one should be prosecuted as a terrorist for using their first amendment rights to advocate for animals.
Additionally, on it’s face the AEPA & the AETA are laws that are supposed to penalize people who are “already” breaking the law. Ex. breaking & entering, arson, theft of documents, etc… What people don’t realize are the legal nuances that prosecute some of the more legal forms of protest.
For the last 6 months of your 3 year incarceration, you were held in a “Communication Management Unit” (CMU); could you explain what this “prison inside a prison” was like, and why you were sent there.
The CMU is designed to totally control any comunication you may have with the outside world. The inmates in the CMU were almost all political cases, 70% of the inmates were Muslim or Arab nationals with political cases. no one in the CMU had “high security” classifications, instead they were inmates that were designated to be “minimum” or “low” security inmates. But, the CMU was within a maximum security compound.
The idea was to keep us contained and put a lid on our voices, deny the press access to us (denying interview requests, etc) and severing us from our families and support structures I believe I was transferred to the CMU, in part, because they needed to increase their non-Muslim demographic because of the discrimination lawsuit they expected to occur as fallout. 3 lawsuits against the CMU & Obama Administration are now live in court.
How accommodating was the CMU to your vegan lifestyle?
The CMU made a concerted effort to always provide me with a vegan diet, however, I was able to access fresh vegetables at the medium security prison I was at in North Carolina, I did not have such luxuries at the CMU.
The CMU staff was so concerned about my nutrition they would load my food up with this soy “gravel” as I called it, it was quite a chore to get it down. I’d much rather eat rice & beans then soy slop & supplements.
I am sure some of you have friends or loved ones who assume that it is hard to stay healthy & vegan, the CMU staff shared that opinion and gave me these nasty meals of supplements.
The Muslim men were so friendly to me, and went out of their way to find vegan items on their trays and get me things like canned vegetables, apples, oranges, etc.
What advice would you give to someone who is interested in helping to stop the use of nonhuman animals in medical research, when that someone is unwilling to engage in direct action?
I would suggest that they emphasize their creativity. Part of what made SHAC so successful was it’s ability to constantly re-invent itself and adapt to new targets. There is no one “right” way to be active. I know we all see a lot of opinionated people who think one style of activism is the one style that “gets the goods” but every action matters, no matter how big or small.
I would also encourage every activist to study how capitalism affects animals. When you can identify how a company makes its profits and how they benefit from the exploitation of animals then you can begin to understand the language you need to speak to the animal exploiters & their financial supporters.
Sadly, we live in a world where the united language is money. If you make it so that it is no longer profitable for the abusers to use animals then they will make an obvious choice to alternatives.
When you stated the following words in your letter from prison, “No wall or cage can contain you, because you’re always free”, how do you think we should go about setting these animals free, until all the cages are empty,
Again I would emphasize creativity, and studying the systems of oppression that build the cages. Whether it’s sexism, racism, homophobia, or speciesism, there is commonplace system of oppression that allows those sicknesses to grow. If activists take time to study the systems that allow oppression to exist you will know how to best attack those systems. If the system loses inertia amidst alternatives and negative sentiments it will build less cages, literally & metaphorically
An animal enterprise focusing on making ends meet and dealing with an overwhelming negative press campaign & direct action will literally have less time to expand and build new cages. While people considering new ideas presented to them regarding sexism, patriarchy, homophobia, will be more aware of their own contributions to these institutions of oppression so metaphorically they will be creating less cages.
Can you help clear up a matter that has bothered me for a long time. The “C” in SHAC stands for “cruelty” and you state in an interview that your actions “were in furtherance of a shared collective goal of ending the animal cruelty that was happening at Huntingdon Life Sciences.” At no time did I see SHAC mention nonhuman animal rights violations – they always talked about opposing cruelty to animals. Does this imply that the SHAC campaigners would be content with animal experiments that they deemed not to be “cruel,” or does it mean that they thought it not possible to conduct experiments that are not cruel?
Thanks, and, no, it was not meant to imply that we would be happy with a better standard of animal tests… The language was nuanced for legal purposes.
However, there is an interesting reality in that… Right now we are seeing HLS phase out almost 40% of it’s animal tests and replace them with non-human toxicology experiments. I cannot speak for the entire campaign, but I personally would feel satisfied with HLS becoming an animal-free product testing lab. Although I hate their client contractors as well, I would be happy to see that animals were no longer used in their experiments.
Sparrow Media are involved with the Uganda Skate and Solidarity Project, could you explain more about this project and why Sparrow became involved?
I got involved when my friend Cassi Gibson came back from Kampala with photos… The kids there have such an amazing story & I really see an opportunity there to allow something brilliant to happen to see young people, in a place rife with conflict, leading by their own example and creating a space where they can peacefully congregate, set aside their differences and be creative is really amazing.
I think the whole world can learn a lot from those kids… So we’ve been supporting their projects, getting them gear, helping them w/ fundraising to expand, and possibly making a TV show about it with the fuel network…
You can learn more about it here http://sparrowmedia.net/skate–solidarity-uganda-/ and buy a t-shirt supporting the kids here – http://www.merchdirect.com/SparrowMediaProject/Tshirts/Sparrow_Media_I_Love_Mosque_on_Baby_Blue_American_Apparel_Fine_Jersey__TShirt?productid=12887
How do you respond to the supply and demand argument that closing down HLS is futile so long as the demand for its vivisection services remain – is it not the case that a speciesist society will simply replace any suppliers and protect new suppliers to meet the demand, especially when suppliers operate on a multinational basis?
Well, that was a serious discussion we all had during the campaign, there are basically 3 large CRO’s like HLS tht operate on a multinational level, Covance, Quintellis, & HLS. We would sometimes see clients leave HLS and move to Quintellis and we watched as the companies worth would bump with the adoption of new clients. What people sometimes don’t see is the trepidation that we created in the entire vivisection industry. Johnson & Johnson, Teva, and Bristol Myers all sued me or made attempts to buy out websites and URL names I had reserved and I never campaigned against them. This happened b/c they felt that we were driving the whole vivisection industry into a sort of “dark ages” Vivisection was becoming less & less popular, and clients were avoiding the CRO route, and trying to make products (household products, cleaners, toothpastes, etc that avoided testing all together) there was a ripple effect.
That is also coupled with the point I made before that HLS has reduced it’s animal use and placed a new emphasis on blood toxicology tests via their subsidiary centra-labs
I know this seems such a simplistic question Andy, but being jailed for doing something “illegal” when what you are fighting should be illegal must play with your head at times?
Sometimes, but I try not to harp on it, if you let it get to you it can, but why would I want to let myself be punished further?
Occasionally I see a silver lining, I was able to meet some amazing people who too were jailed for their beliefs, it strengthened the effectiveness of my voice, and I have tried to use that positively since I have got out. So it cuts both ways. Prison is not easy, but it is not the end of the world, and there is something rewarding about knowing you did what was right despite the consequences.
You’ve described “terrorism” as being an opportunistic word, particularly since 9/11. Who does it benefit to label people like yourself, who are obviously not violent, and in fact quite peaceful, as a “terrorist? If 9/11 hadn’t happened, do you think you would ever have been labeled a “terrorist”? Do you think you were used to set an example to other activists?
Yes, my case was used as an example to other activists; in fact I believe that was the major reasoning the government had. Regarding your first part, yes, terrorism is an opportunistic word, we did see that word used about the ALF & ELF prior to 9/11. I cant call it if they would use that word to describe us had 9/11 not happened, perhaps it would have been a different word, with similar opportunistic drives.
Do you think that the media coverage of your action and MDA in general helps to put the public opinion on our side or we may look as radicals or fanatics, therefore alienating us from the public?
I think there is a time to use the media, and a time to ignore them. Sometimes we cannot worry what they will say about us, because our actions are essential right now. Other times it is important to make the media a central part of your campaign. Usually it is best to use the media in campaigns where public support plays an essential role. In the case of HLS our negative attention in the media actually drove customers away from HLS and drove them further out of business.
What we did was not for everyone, and I would not suggest that the way we operated is best for any other group, but in our specific case, the negative media actually helped.
In your VeganTHIS interview you talk about corporations being afraid of ordinary people. Many animal advocates, however, seem to suggest that most of the mainstream population are stupid, easily led, just as easily manipulated, and utterly passive. Who’s right and who’s wrong – or are we talking about different people?
I think people sometimes allow themselves to be manipulated, simply because it is easier. I don’t think people are inherently stupid. Sometimes it’s easier for people to be ignorant. Corporations & mainstream media spend a lot of time trying to occupy our attention with mundane fluff (you tube videos, gossip, non-news items) and off of really serious issues. Corporations are afraid of that collective consciousness, and are afraid of individuals just like ourselves.
There’s a SHAC7 link to http://www.andystepanian.com/ is that a mistake? There’s talk of wool socks – what’s all that about – a spoof site perhaps?
Yes, it’s a cyber squatter, who has been trying to blackmail money out of me. He once put hyperlinks with pornography & statements from me on that site, and I threatened lawsuit… Needless to say I dont have the money to take him to court so it stays up as is, and I am not going to back down and give him the money he is asking for in order to get the URL back.
The Sparrow Media Project sounds great. Do you think such grassroots efforts further make the case that the massive animal advocacy corporations are not needed in the internet age when grassroots activists can easily get organized and tooled up with information and materials? Wouldn’t all the money currently poured down the drain of corporate wages and structures (PeTA/HSUS, etc.) be better spent locally by local grassroots people who know the local issues best?
That question seems to be in two parts so I will answer the first and then the second after:
1)Accessibility to the press has always been a hurdle for grassroots groups, for a while only the biggest groups with publicity agents and media teams could have access. It made it a sort of pay-to-play access to the media. The internet also allows you to make your own media, which is very important to affect democratic growth and social change; hopefully we will one day outgrow our need for the corporate media entirely and just make our own social networking web2.0 sites are starting to level this playing field.
2)I do think it is a shame that the larger a group become the more it starts to behave like a business and structure itself as such. It seems ot be true of all the oversized special interest groups, much of their money goes into their operating costs and not to helping animals, the environment, or people.
Could you suggest any online prisoner support groups for those who would like to write to currently incarcerated prisoners, and could you tell us how it impacts on prisoners to receive letters of support?
You’ve mentioned the role that musicians and their bands can play in raising awareness for causes of social justice, even when they may not themselves be aware that they are doing that. Can you expand on what you meant?
Well music has always played a powerful role in revolutions. Songs can be directly inspiring and teach people directly because everyone listening to music is a captive audience and music is filled with feelings to appeal, so indirectly an artist can use their popularity to promote an issue, through product placement (wearing no fur shirts at shows or for TV interviews) by lending a song or performance to a benefit show, etc. Shows are also powerful places to network and recruit new activists
Andy, does it concern you that some people will always associate you with radicalism or violence because of your incarceration? Some will never hear anything you say because of what they think happened in the past.
Good question. I am aware that people try to focus on those prison years and highlight them when mentioning my name. I try to make it clear that I was an activist since I was 12 years old, and will continue to be one for the rest of my life. I don’t think my activism will be defined by a few years of my life. I hope that I will do so much good work, that those 3 years spent in prison will barely be noticed. I am focused on the now & not the past. When I book speaking engagements I seldom allow my events to mention my prison years.
If I may just add this about my current projects:
No one at the Sparrow project is taking a payroll right now, we get our budget largely from merchandising like this, and with every shirt we sell we give 50% to the cause we are working for. If possible could each of you consider buying one or sharing the links with your friends on Facebook etc. The vegan shirts have been a real hit! http://www.merchdirect.com/SparrowMediaProject
The vegan art is inspired by Robert Indiana’s LOVE typography, and drives home the message that we are vegan because we love. Those shirts & the tote bags both benefit Farm Sanctuary the other 50% goes into our PR budget to help projects. Please stay in touch. http://www.facebook.com/andy.stepanian
Animal Rights Zone (ARZone) is a voluntary, grassroots, abolitionist animal rights social network created in December 2009 with the aim of encouraging rational dialogue in the animal protection movement.