“I realize that if I wait until I am no longer afraid to act, write, speak, be, I’ll be sending messages on a Ouija board, cryptic complaints from the other side.” – Audre Lorde
Today, people are celebrating May Day but for me, this day marks another occasion, one tinged with sorrow: it’s the day the British government began their offensive on the SHAC campaign, systematically taking out organisers and as a result, spreading fear throughout the animal liberation movement that anyone could be next. At dawn on the 1st May 2007, in what was the biggest raid ever conducted against animal liberation activists, 700 police officers stormed the homes of 30 activists. It’s the day our lives were forever altered, the day we would learn exactly just how fucked up our world is, and the day we would begin to pay the heavy price for trying to change it for the better.
I was a teenager when a gang of men broke into my home, kicked down my bedroom door and screamed at me to drop the bed sheet I was holding up to cover my naked chest. They screamed and screamed at me to put my hands on my head until I was so frightened that one of them might shoot me if I didn’t obey, that after what felt like an eternity, I dropped the bed sheet and raised my hands above my head, exposing my naked self to the eyes of about half a dozen men taking me in. One of them I recognised from policing our demos; he was smirking at me.
They pulled me out of my bed, put me into handcuffs and took me away. It would be the start of years of psychological warfare, power-play and bullying. For six years, I would be stuck in what would feel like the most toxic, abusive relationship which I was unable to escape from. But it wasn’t with a partner: It was with the state.
I know what it’s like to grow up in an abusive home. I’ve experienced broken glass, doors being kicked down, shouting, intimidation and violence. However there’s something so much more insidious when it’s the state that is the one perpetrating it. When it’s the police who are the ones inflicting it, the sense of helplessness is so much more pronounced. The people who you’re meant to turn to in order to stop the abuse are the ones doing it; and if you run, you’ll get into even more trouble. It’s one of the most mind-warping experiences possible to imagine, being repeatedly told how terrible you are by people who are responsible for inflicting so much worse. And yet everyone seems to believe them instead of you. You have lies spread about you as facts, your narrative stolen from you and a made-up image of yourself presented to the public and vilified. And I was a kid. I didn’t know how to counteract it. I didn’t know whether I should speak up. Speaking up felt dangerous. Speaking up was what had gotten me into trouble in the first place. So I stayed silent, too hurt and confused at the world to know how to articulate my thoughts into easy-to-digest soundbites.
I remember the only way I could deal with what they did to us was to try to make it into a game of just how much more I could take. It gave me a sense of power over my life where I knew that I had none. They could do whatever they wanted to me and I was powerless to prevent them. So instead I turned it into a ‘game’: how much of it could I take without falling apart? What other indignity could they pile on top without seeing me cry?
I look back now and am so angry about what they did to us. I was a teenager. I wasn’t some hardened criminal. I was a kid who simply wanted to stop animal abuse, and I was stuck in a system that had sided with the abusers. I had done the only thing I could think of to stop animal exploitation in a corrupt system which had repeatedly changed the goal-posts. I hadn’t wanted to be an activist but had felt duty-bound to become one & do what I could to help those animals. And I was subjected to what felt like the most violent assault because of it. If any other people kicked down the door of a teenage girl, dragged her half-naked out of bed, restrained her & kidnapped her for 36 hours while threatening to force feed her & keep her locked up for decades, they’d be thought of as some of the most vicious, violent criminals. If anyone else locked up that same girl for years, denied her from being able to speak with her only friends, made it almost impossible to remain in contact with her family, denied her from speaking up about the causes she cares about, and repeatedly threatened her that any misstep would see her thrown back in a cell, we would assume those people were sadists. And yet when they have a badge, somehow it’s meant to make it all okay?
A few days after I was raided, I had a nightmare that I was being raided again and I am embarrassed to say I wet the bed. I’m mortified to admit to it, even now. For over ten years I kept this a secret and to this day, have only ever told one other person. I was so ashamed of myself (a grown adult) for having wet the bed that I never dared tell anyone. For the longest time I carried around this shame with me, feeling like there was something wrong with me, embarrassed at my own vulnerability: that I could be so easily frightened that I would lose control of my own body. I didn’t want to be fearful, I wanted to be strong. I didn’t believe that I had any right to be scared. The animals endure so much worse and I knew this, so how could I be scared for speaking up for them? And yet there I was: scared. And I was ashamed at myself for it. Ashamed to be scared when my fear would never compare to the animals.
For a very long time, I tried to deny being affected by what they did to us. I pretended to be stronger than I was, the kind of person I admire, the kind of person who can laugh in the face of it all. I made light of the situation and cracked jokes about it. I still do joke about it, because it feels so much easier laughing about it than dealing with all the hopelessness and despair I actually feel when I reflect on it. But the truth is I was massively affected by it, and I still am. It’s defined my life and the trauma from it still affects me to this day.
One day I had been organising with my friends, laughing, joking, planning campaign actions. The next day, my friends were ripped out of my life and legally, I would not be allowed to see or speak (directly or indirectly) with many of them for almost a decade. My life as I knew it was over. My life’s purpose – fighting for animal liberation – was forbidden to me through punishing bail and licence restrictions. Although the British government tried to pretend their targeting wasn’t politically motivated, our treatment said otherwise. It was their time to exact their revenge and they would go on to treat us in some of the most cruel ways possible, which far exceeded how they treat individuals convicted of any other crimes.
Sometimes I hear people excuse the police as being “victims of the system”. Yet, all I can see are the biggest bullies and thugs on the planet. These are the people who conspired with industry to crush our successful campaign.These are the people who conspired to deny us a fair trial, denying us access to evidence they knew would have undermined their case. These are the people who conspired to psychologically torment us into becoming traumatised shells of the activists we once were. These are the people who conspired to kidnap and imprison us for years, taking us out of the fight for long enough that the lab could be saved by merging with another company and then being bought by Covance. Worst of all, this is the institution which conspired to deny the animals the one shot they had at freedom, and for that, I will never be able to forgive them. That millions of animals have been tortured to death because of their actions, I will forever hold the state accountable. The police are not victims of the system, they are the system: the system that allows for innocent creatures to be tortured to death and the system which deliberately breaks apart anyone who tries to stop that.
When the state treated us in this way, it was to make an example out of us. When the courts sentenced my friends and me to manifestly excessive prison terms, it was designed to be a deterrence to others. “This is what we will do to you if you upset the powers that be.” For the longest time, it worked. The anti-vivisection movement as it was, was destroyed. In a series of trials, the movement was decimated and soon no one else was prepared to stand up and be the next to have their heads cut off for speaking out against this brutal industry.
So why am I talking about it now? Why am I bringing up how vicious their repression was? I speak up because I’m tired up of being scared. For so long, I stayed quiet, afraid of the consequences of speaking up. But I don’t want our story to deter people. I want our story to anger people. I want people to be outraged at the lengths the state went to in order to protect the status-quo. And I want people to stop expecting they will ever receive justice by asking for it from a system rooted in injustice and oppression. I want people to look at me and my friends and to know we went through hell, but we survived it. Meanwhile the animals didn’t. They went and they are going through a hell so much worse, and they don’t survive it. They die – in their billions. .
I carry so much anger and heartbreak about what the state did to my friends and me but I can barely touch on what they did to the animals. They condemned millions of animals to the most horrific life and death inside Huntingdon Life Sciences. I try to block what they did to the animals out, because when I think about it, I can’t even be angry. I’m just shattered.
It’s easy to look at our story and believe that we can never win, but I don’t want that to be the moral of our story. We have to believe we can change the world. We have to make a conscious effort every single day to get up, get out and get active in the face of what can so often feel like almost certain defeat. Because change happens every day in big and small ways, in the world and in each other. And sometimes the smallest action can kickstart an avalanche. In the words of my friend and personal hero (in a movement that understandably tends not to have heroes, I am guilty of having some), Heather Nicholson, imprisoned for 11 years for trying to close down HLS, wrote from her prison cell: “This is a straightforward battle between good and evil, mercy and misery, compassion and cruelty.” Please never be intimidated into inaction. Be scared but do it anyway. You don’t have to pretend to be stronger than you are but please believe in the power you have to create change. Have heroes or don’t have them, but most importantly, become your own hero. Look out for one another, hold each other up in a world designed to make us quit. Take risks, be bold, be inventive, be daring. The only thing worse than the consequences of taking action is looking back and knowing you should have done something, but didn’t.