Above ground: Interview with ALF activist Peter Young
- Published: 10 June 2011
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11 June 2011
You were recently in Troy, New York, for a screening of the animal rights feature film Bold Native. How did you get involved in that project?
The filmmakers for Bold Native contacted me about two years ago. I don’t think they had any real interest in getting me involved. They just kind of wanted to talk to me and discuss the film.
So I went into their office in L.A. and did a little reading. I’ve done a lot of acting in my life. (But) it’s always been acting to get me out of sketchy situations. Being in prison and having to lie to people to get out situations. Or like, I don’t know, I talked my way into a Madonna concert one time. Things like that.
Anyway, it’s never been acting in the sense that you think of it as an artform. So I did a reading, and I guess they thought my ability was passable and they gave me a small, small role in the film.
Because of my ineptitude in the art of acting it took about 40 takes. Well I don’t want to say 40, but it wouldn’t be too far off. I couldn’t remember my lines. Really, what was interesting about that scene, I mean it was a short scene, but at the end, Denis Henry, the screenwriter—I think probably because I was having such a hard time with my lines—was just like, “You know what? Let’s just ad-lib this. You’re somebody who thinks this ALF action that this person is proposing to you is maybe not the smartest idea. What would you say to somebody to sort of poke holes in a plan they might have for an Animal Liberation Front (ALF) raid?” So I just kind of went off the cuff.
I said, “Where are the animals going to go? Who are these people? Are they solid? Are they going to snitch on you?” I kind of just went through the ways I might disagree with a particular action. That ad-lib stuff ended up being probably half of that scene. So I think it worked out really well.
It seems like the debates over welfarism and direct action are getting increasingly heated these days. Do you think there’s a certain point where those debates stop being productive and start becoming destructive internally?
Absolutely. I mean I’m not somebody who has any sort of pipe dreams of a movement that has the absence of infighting. Because I know it’s certainly inevitable when you have people who feel really strongly about things. I have really strong opinions about tactical issues and so forth.
But yes there’s no question that when you don’t treat somebody with at least the underlying assumption that they’re moving towards the same goals, when clearly they are, I think that’s when the problem starts.
I can sit down with somebody, and they might disagree with some of the things that I talk about or maybe some of the things I’ve done. But as long as they can convince me that they’re moving towards the same goal and their tactics are based on the best information available to them, then that’s something we can build on.
What do you think is the best way to avoid sectarianism that’s harmful?
I think the best way is to get rid of all the false dichotomies that we’ve internalized. Just totally discard these ideas that you need to choose between being an outreach activist or carrying out ALF actions, for example.
You can do both…I can tell you, when I was getting involved in activism, I was like 18. We would be out leafleting during the day with Vegan Outreach literature, and we’d be out at night breaking butcher shop windows. There’s really no reason that those two things aren’t compatible.
You recently published a book, Underground: The ALF in the 1990s that chronicles the first 30 years of the ALF. Compiling the information, did you notice an effect the Green Scare has had in the frequency of direct actions for animals?
It’s very hard to know what to attribute the ebb and flow and different waves of direct action to. I think it would be probably too premature to say for sure, “Yeah the Green Scare had an effect,” although we have seen a drop in actions.
The effect of the Green Scare, I see it more clearly just in talking to people at events like what we’re going to have tonight. Just listening to people talk and expressing fears about even participating in explicitly aboveground, legal actions. That’s where I really see it.
But it was really interesting putting that book together. A lot of trends emerge that you don’t see otherwise. It could be as simple as a surge in ALF actions in a certain town that you can pretty clearly tie to the popularity of certain vegan bands in the area at the time. A lot of really interesting trends like that emerge.
Did you notice a difference between the 1990s and the 2000s in terms of the frequency and size of direct actions for animals?
Yes, that was one of the most noticeable things. If you look in the mid-90s, you have the largest number of actions and the ALF was most prolific during that period ... What you have (more recently) is fewer actions, which is not a good thing, but the actions are bigger in impact now than they’ve ever been.
What you had in the ‘90s was a series of scattershot-style actions, where you had people would break out the windows of a butcher shop one night and spray paint a Dairy Queen the next night. It was sort of this low-level smash attack, a real basic sabotage-style action on a real retail target or restaurant target. That’s not maximizing the impact that ALF tactics have.
If you’re going to go out and put yourself on the line, I think it’s really important you make sure you do something you can feel good about going to prison for—maybe something a little more strategic than just breaking a window. So what you have these days are fewer actions, but when the actions do happen, they’re actions of a high impact.
Either they’re live liberations, where animals are being rescued directly, or large-scale arsons. But you don’t really see the window breaking, the lock gluing as much anymore, which I think is a good thing.
After being released from prison, was it hard to find a new above-ground role?
Absolutely. Talking about how to make a difference for animals is much less rewarding than actually going out and making that difference yourself in the way you think is most effective. So it has been difficult. There’s no question about it. We all have to do our part.
I’m not carrying out ALF actions anymore. But I will always lend my verbal support to people who do. I am able to reach a lot of people through the hook that a prison sentence provides. Whether it’s talking to the media or getting invited to speak at events like tonight, it does provide a really good opportunity to reach a lot of people. But I can tell you it’s not the same.
So, going forward, what do you see as your role?
That’s a really good question. It’s really something I’ve struggled with since I got out. Where I live, we go out on the weekends and we do protests, just like I was doing when I was 18. I have a different take on that kind of tactic these days. I don’t have the same faith in protests that I once did. But I still feel like, “Look it’s a Saturday. I need to do something. I can’t just do nothing…”
It’s not easy having to go from living a way where there was very little gap between my beliefs and what I was doing. It’s very hard to go from that to getting in front of an audience and just talking to people. I’ve never been inspired by what anyone has said.
I’ve only been inspired by looking at what they do. Having to sort of be downgraded to the role of the guy that gets up and talks to people—you kind of feel like your best days are behind you, sometimes … I think you could have 100 people on a speaking tour full-time talking about some of the things I talk about, and at the end of the day, does it translate into anything? Probably not.
Do you plan on writing more books?
Yes, I am. Actually the A.L.F. Diary of Actions book came out of research that I was doing for another book that I’ve been chipping away at for a while. I don’t want to go into too many of the details. But I think it’s going to be really great. We’ll say its direct action history; we’ll just leave it at that … so yes, I’m working on some writing projects.
How can above-ground activists better support the underground?
One thing you can do is, and I feel obligated to say this having been in this situation, if anybody ever finds themselves wanted for an ALF action, and chooses to evade capture and become a fugitive, and become hunted by the government, take them in. Give them shelter. Give them money.
Do whatever you can for the people who haven’t been caught, or the people that frankly might want to carry out ALF actions, but are wondering or have concerns about what might happen if they were caught, I think it’s really important we send them the message that if they get caught they are going to be supported.
The best way to do that is to support the people who are in prison right now through letters, through money. Do a website for them. There are a lot of things you could do … And frankly, if anybody ever comes to anyone else …saying, “There’s something I want to do. I need the money to do it.” I’m certainly not going to encourage “material support for terrorism;” that’s really what the government would probably call it.
But I can tell you, if people want to support the ALF, the best thing you can do is literally support the ALF. If you’re not going to carry out actions, and you know somebody who has a plan, I think those people, if they really want to support the ALF, those people would just give them money. Or rent them a car. Or even better, give homes, give sanctuary to the animals they rescue.
Because that’s one of the biggest obstacles to doing a live liberation-style action: not having anywhere for the animals to go. If you have land, give land to those animals. Those are the most hands-on things that you can do.
Jon Hoch is a freelance journalist from Upstate New York. He has written for Z Magazine and the Industrial Worker, among other publications.