I met Debbie couple of times during animal rights gatherings in different countries and remember her so well because she was always busy – selling T-shirts to support SHAC campaign, talking about her experiences as an activist and so on. She is one of these activists I learned a lot from and like others, I was shocked then in 2014 she was sentenced for 6 years for ‘conspiracy to blackmail’ for simply being involved in the campaign, with the trial showing absolutely no connection between her and any criminal acts. It was not possible to get an interview from her before today (and you can read from her answers why), so I wonder is it a first one after she is free (or almost free)?
You have been an animal rights activist for a long time. Why? There are so many other problems in the world.
I first became aware of animal suffering about 30 years ago and initially went veggie back in the mid/late eighties. Though unfortunately, I didn’t make the full connection straight away and didn’t start campaigning for animal liberation as well as other social issues for a further couple of years. My eyes were opened up to the suffering, injustices and indifference that humankind wrought on the planet and it’s inhabitants. I had to act, to make others aware and help try and stop the suffering I witnessed. I wouldn’t say that I’m just an animal activist, as I’ve been involved and supported many other interconnecting social issues. But I have certainly concentrated my efforts more around animal liberation issues.
Please describe in what kind of campaigns you have been involved.
I became vegan when I went to study at university in 1991. There I met other like-minded people and initially got involved in hunt sabbing, campaigning against animal experiments at the university and different environmental issues. I then got involved in other social issues across the spectrum and became aware of the intersectionality of all forms of oppression. This at a time when Sea Shepherd, Earth First! and other direct action campaigns where starting to grow in the UK and internationally. As well as campaigns against road building, genetic modification and anti-war.
Between 1993 and 2001, I continued to campaign against many issues, including the badger cull, hunting, live exports, animal circuses as well as doing voluntary animal rescue work and working at sanctuaries in the south-west. During the late 90s, I set up a local AR group and also helped set up a coalition group against the UK government’s continued killing of badgers and other wildlife. I was also involved in a community recycling/reclamation project and going on national protests, marches and other projects.
From 2001, I was travelling around the country helping out at various animal rescues, radical social projects, campaigns such as CAFT, SPEAK and SHAC as well as campaigning against peat extraction and other eco issues.
One of these campaigns was SHAC. Why do you think this campaign grew so fast to strong one and ended so hard for some activists?
In the mid nineties, there was large continuous protests against live exports in the UK and later, in the late nineties, there had been many successes with campaigning against and closing down vivisection breeders and animal suppliers by grass routes activism – Consort Beagles, Hillgrove Farm, Regal Rabbits, Shamrock Primate Farm and other smaller ones in the UK. Carrying on from those successes, a campaign against Huntingdon Life Sciences was restarted after a long campaign by local grassroots activists. The new campaign was called SHAC, for Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty. The campaign grew quickly following on from the progress of anti-vivisection campaigns around the UK and also a TV documentary made by Channel 4, called ‘It’s a Dog’s Life’ that was aired in 1997 and showed undercover footage of HLS lab technicians who abused and hit animals inside HLS. What followed was a lot of negative media attention and HLS’ customers and shares dropping too, so that was used to kick-start the new campaign by SHAC against HLS.
Activists continually protested outside the gates of the two HLS’ sites in the UK, over time this came more difficult due to injunctions. This was answered by an expansion into tactically targeting of the supply companies, customers and financial backers of HLS. With hundreds of small and multi-national companies dropping their involvement with HLS over time due to pressure from activists.
Because of the effectiveness of activists, undercover exposes and SHAC, HLS lost their bank account and insurance and the UK government stepped in to provide these, while big pharma companies and lobbyists put pressure on the UK government. While UK activists were being targeted with new laws to protect the vivisection industry, SHAC expanded into other countries and importantly, SHAC USA was born in 2002. But by 2004, repression of activists in the UK and USA was continued to be ramped up and six activists from SHAC USA were raided by armed police under new draconian laws and would later be imprisoned. Then in May 2007, hundreds of UK police were involved in raiding SHAC activists across the UK and some European countries too, this lead to arrests and imprisonments, with large prison sentences being dished out to some.
After the SHAC UK raids in May 2007, of which I was one of the 32 arrested and I was released with no further action. I started doing more SHAC protests around London and nationally. I was involved in helping organise many national marches as well as helping out at a local cat rescue where I was living.
Later, between 2010 and 2013, I was raided three times by the police and since then went to court and faced a sentence of six years for my perceived part I played in the SHAC UK campaign. Other activists were also raided and arrested in 2012 and 2013 as the UK government continued their repression and round up of activists.
Because of that you were in jail. Can you describe how you managed there?
I’m lucky and privileged compared to so many, I’m not saying that to be stoic, it’s what I believe. All the love, friendship, support and solidarity I received while incarcerated helped carry me through what at times can only to explained as a badly thought out social experiment.
Prison is archaic, barbaric, counter-productive and dehumanising. It isolates people from their loved ones and their communities. Prison also adds to worsening mental health, heartache, fear, stress and the alienation through isolating incarceration. But there is also comradery, friendship and shared experiences to help people through.
Being in prison is a unique experience and differs with our individual circumstances, character, health, gender and which country or prison we are incarcerated in. Although being in prison is a crap situation to be in and I greatly missed all nature, my friends, of course my freedom and all those little things that make our lives fuller. But for me I know things could have been so much worst – I had a roof over my head, regular meals, water and comparative safety (more than countless millions of humans and trillions of animals) – all victims of speciesism, violent conflict, famine, corporate and government policies as well as environmental destruction, oppression and our indifference to all suffering caused in the world.
Though my body may have been incarcerated, I always had ultimate control over my heart, mind and soul. Sometimes, when we cannot control our circumstances, the only thing we do control is our reaction to those circumstances. This was a lot harder for many to cope with who had substance abuse and mental health issues. The time I was in prison I noticed an increase in the amount of warehousing of those with mental health issues, another example of the lack of financial support for social care services in this capitalist world.
I remember you wrote that you were studying gardening there. How was it? And can you use this knowledge these days?
Yes, I kept myself occupied with different activities when I could – gardening, gym, some yoga, reading and writing and later courses, including horticulture, fitness, animal care and art.
I’ve never been someone who enjoys formal education and academia, I didn’t do well at school and it was only later that I did some higher education, but I’m not a natural and have generally always preferred hands on, physical work to education.
Having said that, I realised it was important to keep my mind busy and enrolled in a few courses while incarcerated. When I was first in prison I did some gardening, a health and fitness course relating to being a gym instructor and also underwent training with The Samaritans, to become a prison listener, a voluntary role to give a compassionate ear to those less fortunate at times of need within the prison. At my second prison, Holloway, I was locked up 22+ hours a day with no access to education or activities for nearly five months. Then later when I moved to my last prison (and longest part of my sentence), I did a horticulture course and after that a correspondence diploma course in animal care (as I had always just picked up skills at rescues/sanctuaries over the years and didn’t have any formal qualifications) and also some basic art classes. So all in all, I tried to keep my mind busy which helped with the madness of prison life.
When I got released to a probation hostel in Reading, as well as my license conditions, I also had rules that I had to follow at the hostel, otherwise I could have been sent back to prison. I was allowed to volunteer for a homeless charity that used horticulture to support those with issues and try to connect them with nature and food production.
Once I left the hostel after eight months and found a place to live, I was allowed to get involved with two community not-for-profit eco/social projects. I helped repair donated bikes which were then given out to disadvantaged people – refugees, unemployed and those that couldn’t afford high public transport costs. And also helped collect ‘waste’ timber from building sites and individuals that was processed to be reused as reclaimed timber in the timber yard, or used to make reclaimed furniture or recycled into wood pulp, taking hundreds of tonnes of discarded wood which would have ended up on landfill sites.
Any work I undertook had to be prior approved and there were many types of work I could not be involved with because of my license conditions, including any campaigning or animal work.
It is very difficult to understand why you were not allowed to do so many things after you got out. I remember you were not allowed to use internet, not to be in social media, not to travel, not to communicate with other activists. How did you survive that? To be vegan is almost mainstream thing these days, it’s quite impossible not to communicate with them.
Although my physical incarceration came to an end in April 2017, the punitive controls over part of my life continued until April 2020. In the UK, you do at least half your sentence in prison and the rest in the community with license conditions, under the supervision of probation and as was the case with me, the police too. These conditions leave you in limbo between being in prison and being ‘free’ – are generally unique to you – some of which are fairly standard, while others are tailored specifically as a means of control relating to your alleged crime.
For me that meant: I was transported from the prison by plain clothes police to the probation hostel (as apparently I wasn’t trusted to make the journey like the vast majority of people being released); while under supervision I had to be of good behaviour and not commit any offence; report to my supervisor (and while I was at the hostel sign in many times a day); not reside anywhere or stay over anywhere without prior approval; not to undertake any type of work without prior permission; not to travel outside the UK; only own and use one phone device (of which I have to give all the details of the phone); not to engage in any discussion or act to promote activism; not to contact any other SHAC defendants; not to associate with any person working for big pharma; provide all the details of any bank accounts; not to contact any prisoner or anyone on remand; not to contact any activist who may have a conviction (this was later to include anyone the police deemed to be unsuitable according to ‘police intelligence’); comply fully with my supervisor; not to access any computer without prior approval (and give all the details of any device used – which can, and was – inspected by the police at times; not to delete the internet history of any computer used and give all details prior to any journey for approval to travel in any vehicle (though I could use public transport).
And of course, probation and the police could amend any of these conditions at their whim (and did!) without any written amendments or transparency, or reason!
The UK penal system is supposedly a balance between societies’ need for ‘justice’ to be done, in some form of punishment, and the societies’ liberal compassion to give you a chance to try rebuilding your life. But there is no real support for political prisoners or many that are incarcerated, it’s just a process the state deem you do through, they have no understanding of the deeper issues or your personal circumstances and most prisoners are just splat back out into the community (sometimes just given a tent if they’re homeless!). Of course, as a political prisoner with me maintaining my innocence throughout the trial and prison sentence, it was just another excuse used against me by the authorities to control me further.[i]
But despite all this, I made the best of my circumstances.
Is this over now? Are you allowed to do all things, other citizens can? 🙂 And how to you feel about the fact that couple of weeks before you got free, your country went to lock down because of the virus?
I still have an ASBO (a behaviour order) for the next two years stopping me from having contact or campaigning against many companies involved in vivisection, including the rebranded HLS now Envigo and all their customers.
Yes, I didn’t really expect that I’d be swapping my license conditions for corona lock down ones..! And at this time that makes travelling, volunteering and campaigning almost impossible. And I’ll have to wait and see what happens as the corona restrictions are slowly lifted… Increasing prevalence of pandemics like corona virus should be a stark reminder that our assault on the natural world has consequences…
The UK Tory government has desecrated the health and social care services in this country the past decade or so and their whole initial approach of herd immunity was purely based on economics. They think that the old and poor are dispensable, as they don’t put much into the government coffers… So I’m not surprised that the UK has had many deaths, like many imperial countries and their arrogant capitalist thinking, they act too slowly while thinking about how things affect the economy rather than its citizens! The only silver lining is that we don’t have Trump in charge (sorry USA)!
I worry for the many with lack of healthcare and sanitation across the world during this present human-made crisis. How can there be such an imbalance and lack of respect to all things living. What future does our planet have when we treat so many of our own species so badly, what hope for animals, nature, the environment? And when will we finally learn that we can’t keep taking and abusing this planet without nature and inhabitants being affected by the pressures put on it?
During all your activist life, do you see that things have changed for the animals? If yes, what have changed?
There certainly is more public awareness of issues, with TV and internet, etc. Of course, things have changed, but certainly no way the speed or amount we wish for or when looking at the global course of things where animal abuse is growing. Capitalism is global and our struggle has to be global too, while not forgetting and pressing for each countries’ moral improvements over time. We have to put differences aside and do the absolute very best for those we seek to support and speak out for. There have been many changes to our own societies we try to influence over the decades and animal liberation is still a movement in its infancy.
In the UK, we have a ban on hunting and fur farming, on bear-baiting and cock fighting and everyone in the UK is supposedly an ‘animal lover’. But most ‘animal lovers’ continue to be complicit in the slaughter and consumption of those animals they profess to ‘love’. Individuals use ‘welfare’ and ‘conservation’ as language to complicity, to hide away from their oppression and carnism of other species. Apologists and welfarists do the animal kingdom a huge disservice, and do little to progress or change the status quo.
How to you see animal rights movement these days? I think it has changed a lot. And why there are not so many changes we hoped for? What went wrong?
Unfortunately, having been isolated from the movement for many years, it’s hard to gauge how things have changed more recently. Yes, there is more awareness of issues with the internet, etc. But there seems to be a growing disempowerment of individual humans because of the huge gulf between rich and poor and are we only focussing on the middle class privileged who have access to the internet and the financial flexibility to change? We need to get a majority of the human population from all cultures and backgrounds engaged in all the important pressing issues of the time and how they’re inter-connected. As the way we live and our actions affects others.
Trying to predict the future of the animal rights movement involves seeing what changes have occurred in overall public opinion or their actions regarding the moral status of animals in the world overall. This of course, is very different in developing countries compared to ours. There have been a lot of small changes in certain parts of the world, but we mustn’t forget the holistic global picture and be able to adapt our message for the best outcome.
Three huge realities confront the animal rights movement: (i) The expanding global human population and the continued rise of capitalism; (ii) The huge and expanding number of animals being used for humans on this planet; and (iii) The fact that the actual animal victims have no part in the liberation movement formed on their behalf and we can only guess what their needs are?
After all, we cannot confer rights onto other species. All living species over time (even humans) have been murdered, abused and oppressed (their ‘rights’ taken away by the oppressor). We need to change not only the hearts and minds of others to see the harm they cause, but we also need to change the language of oppression that belittles life into a mere commodity or an enemy, because of their differences to human beings. I certainly don’t have the answers and don’t want to point fingers or blame, we need to come together, with no egos or vested interests and find a collective way forward.
Do you have a vision for the future? Should we continue demanding animal liberation or is it impossible dream?
I’m proud to know wonderful people around the world who continue to try and make a difference and I’m inspired by their courage, compassion, tenacity and hope to challenge human-made violence, cruelty and oppression in an indifferent capitalist world that causes huge suffering to animals, humans and our planet alike. All forms of oppression are inter-connected, and although different, we need to change and continue to challenge the moral environment so that all victims are heard and not ignored, including those without a human voice. If we stopped and truly listened, witnessed, paused for thought and understood the plight of others, of all species and nations. To have empathy, compassion and love, this world would be a better place for all.
Being in prison hasn’t damped my resolve to continue challenging and trying to change these injustices, wrong-doings, violence and cruelty, as well as all forms of oppression. I’ll try to continue to live my life in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of all others. I know I live a privileged life and I will try and use that privilege to help those less fortunate than me across all species, genders, race, etc as they’re all part of life and life should always be more important than short term gain.
Animal liberation isn’t an impossible dream as its key to all social struggles. Our self preservation as a species depends on changing our unsustainable ways. Animal liberation is at the forefront of all social justice and environmental issues. We only exist with nature and if we destroy nature then we will no longer exist either and the last of our days will be lonely and devoid of meaning. When we “stand up for animals”, we increase the amount of moral courage and compassionate understanding in the world. The status of animals as property and not as unique living individuals needs to be continually challenged, until the language and liberation of all beings is taken into account as well as the environment we all share.
In Assata Shakir’s autobiography (who’s an ex-Black Panther and has suffered at the hands of the system). She talks about her story of racism, oppression and police brutality, where she recounts her experiences that led her to embrace a life of activism. One of the things she talks about, is her reluctance to take up the struggle in the first place, as like her, we all wish to have been born into a world where struggle and activism was unnecessary…
But we can all make a difference every day of our lives, no matter how small. Every good deed is like a ripple on water and between us, that ripple can grow into a wave of change. Respect all life, cherish the moments, follow your heart and embrace your fears – keep on, keeping on!
[i] For further understanding and information on what being on license means, of which I wholly agree. I would highly recommend you reading an excellent article by a good friend, comrade and former political prisoner, Lewis Pogson. He is very articulate and to the point about how license conditions impact freedoms. You can find his article here, published by Bristol Anarchist Black Cross’ in ’On The Out’ Zine: https://bristolabc.files.wordpress.com/2012/04/on-the-out-zine.pdf
If you want to know more about SHAC USA, watch the movie- The Animal People 2019. Some countries have it in Netflix.