June 28, 2010

Skateboards in Uganda and Why Capitalism Sucks

Andy Stepanian is a social justice activist with a long history of using civil disobedience and nonviolent direct action in earth, animal, and human liberation struggles including anti-war and anti- globalization efforts.

Today Andy contributes to The Sparrow Project, an organization promoting social justice, activism, and music/art with socially beneficial themes. Current projects include the Ugandan Skate and Solidarity Project to sustain East Africa’s only skate park, a haven for teenage boys in war-torn Uganda, and plans for an adjacent school.

But Andy is more likely to go down in history as a terrorist than a humanitarian. In 2004 Andy and codefendants Lauren Gazzola, Kevin Kjonas, Jacob Conroy, Darius Fullmer, and Josh Harper were indicted on charges of conspiring to financially disrupt a vivisection lab in New Jersey. Their crime? Running a website exposing, and opposing, the lab and its business partners. In the landmark free-speech case, all six were found guilty in what federal prosecutors called “a litmus test of protected speech on the internet.” Thanks to federal law known then as the Animal Enterprise Protection Act, now the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA), the six were sentenced to a combined 23 years in federal prison.

Andy served three years, his last six months in a secret high-security wing of a federal penitentiary in Illinois called a Communications Management Unit (CMU) , normally reserved for political enemies of the state. Extreme isolation is imposed on CMU prisoners so their contact with family or friends on the outside is limited. CMUs are so notorious some call them “Little Guantanamos.” Andy is believed to be the only person ever released from a CMU.

Andy is on the West Coast for a series of talks and to promote the Ugandan Skate and Solidarity Project, so we asked him some burning questions.

How did you get involved with The Sparrow Project and the issues you’re taking on now, such as the skate park in Uganda?

People are going to always know me as an animal rights activist, but I have always acted on and for myriad other issues. Sparrow is an effort by a few friends and I where through selective PR work we try to summarize a narrative that all rights issues are rooted in concepts of inherent worth, and that all things have worth no matter their size, species, sex, or the privilege assigned to them by our social constructs. When we get people to digest this idea that all things have worth, then they can begin to conceptualize some of the drive for animal liberation, queer liberation, feminism, eco-defense, etc.

Because Sparrow is just a handful of people right now, we have only adopted a few clients and a few projects, the Uganda Skateboard Union in Kitintale, Kampala Uganda is one of these projects. The project sort of fell in my lap when my friends Nicolette and Cassi Gibson returned from East Africa with photos of the kids skating their park. I remember asking them, “what am I looking at?” and being super stoked to see the kids smiling and inventing their own completely unique skateboard styles. I wondered how these kids were able to create a space like this in a region that for almost 20 years has been rife with conflict. It’s naive to think that skateboarding can fashion peace in the middle of a war, but I could not help but feel that it would be principles like the teamwork and solidarity shown at the skatepark that would one day erode decades of hatred, and help build something better for the people of East Africa. I decided from the moment I saw the photos that I wanted to support the kids with their dreams, and shortly thereafter a bunch of my friends and I started Sparrow’s Skate & Solidarity Project.

In it’s first 8 months Sparrow has collected close to $10,000 in brand-new donated gear for the kids in Kitintale, Uganda. We also served as acquisition agents for two books on animal activism, Muzzling a Movement (Lantern 2010), and The Influential Activist (Lantern 2011), and will be serving as publicity agents for Green Is The New Red (City Lights 2011), the much-anticipated book by award-winning journalist Will Potter. We also have shot a series of extended video PSAs with artists and activists like Moby, Envy on the Coast, Bane, Randy J. Hunt, and Paul Watson. Unlike similar video PSAs our focus is to inspire and activate artists, as opposed to the old model of just using them to pitch a message. Lastly, in 2009 and 2010 Sparrow staged an aggressive campaign in the press against Communication Management Units, secretive federal prisons designed to hold political prisoners. We were fairly successful with articles in the L.A. Times, features on Democracy Now!, Reuters, Raw Story and several syndicated pieces in the Associated Press.

You and your co-defendants endured one of the most surreal yet groundbreaking free speech cases in modern history if not all time. Can you tell our readers what they don’t know about the state of constitutionally protected free speech in this country?

Speech and other constitutionally protected rights have consistently been embattled throughout this country’s 200-plus years of history. It’s these legal battles that help shape and define the boundaries of our privileges. Whether it is Brown v. Board of Education, or a much less savory case like Brandenburg v. Ohio, what has happened inside the courtroom and outside on the streets has shaped our lives and the framework of our rights as we know them. When technology had a growth spurt in the 1990s, a vacuum where uncharted activist potential and similarly unregulated policing was created in its wake. The SHAC 7 case charged myself and five others under a never-tried-before statute that equated aggressive boycott activity with terrorism. Specifically, it is alleged that our actions led to the bankruptcy of one of the world’s largest contract animal research facilities, Huntingdon Life Sciences.

In an earlier interview I advised readers to ‘beware the slippery slope’ because we see AETA as a precedent for prosecuting activists as terrorists should their action cost a corporation money. Can you make this clearer in the sense of animal activists being the ‘canaries in the coal mine’ when it comes to silencing dissent?

I don’t want to perpetuate fearmongering amidst activist circles, what happened to me and my co-defendants is likely to not happen to you. I say this because over many years of investigation, grand juries, and through our trial the government spent an excess of $20,000,000 on prosecuting us, an amount that they will unlikely spend in just any situation. Our case was more about creating trepidation within activist communities than it was about prosecuting the SHAC 7 as individuals. They were hoping that they would scare others into inaction, scare them into questioning whether or not this could happen to them.

With that said however, I think it is very important to practice good security protocol and common sense, and vigorously challenge designer statutes like the AETA. It is absolutely essential for all activists to support the AETA 4 defendants inside the courtroom and out. The strength of a movement can be judged by the way it treats its prisoners, and this same theory should extend to the accused. It is imperative that everyone stand behind the AETA 4 to make sure that a legal precedent is not set in their case that further restricts our movement. Lastly I beg everyone reading this to put their activist opinions aside and support the AETA 4 no matter what. There should be spaces where we can critique tactics and activist methodology, but this should not be one of them. As a movement we cannot afford to have more brilliant people go to prison, and we certainly cannot afford a new standard to be set as to what is permissible activism and what is not. Supporting the AETA 4 is directly challenging the AETA on its face and stonewalling its future application.

How do you see these issues – earth, animal, and human liberation – as interconnected, especially in the face of corporate greed?

I see interconnectivity between all social struggles. At their base all are rooted in ideas of liberation and love. If you look deeper you can see significant connections between the way we treat the earth and its animals, and the way women are treated. Often our culture views the earth, its animals, and its natural resources as things to be acquired and dominated. Similarly, there are people who view women the same way. Capitalism as a socioeconomic system is one that rewards dominance and bad practices. Capitalism puts a price on everything, from a coal-filled mountaintop, to a child in a sweatshop, to a woman on a billboard selling beer. Each are given a set monetary worth and place in a hierarchy without any regard for their intrinsic worth.

I am critical of capitalism because I have seen firsthand how it has rewarded animal abusers, I’ve seen how it has rewarded warmongering oil men, or what third world debt has done to farmland in Somalia or the forest in Peru. A critique of capitalism should be central to liberation narratives. Racism, sexism, homophobia, speciesism, and wanton disregard for the environment all are social sicknesses that have been exaggerated in one way or another by capitalism. If we truly care for the causes we champion we should take a close look at the system that is allowing them “to do business as usual.”

On that note, there’s no better person to ask than you: how do you respond to the common criticism that animal rights activists ‘don’t care about people?’

Face to face with said individual I think I would say something like this: “I understand. Animal Rights people are sometimes myopic in their activism, but can you blame them? The rate of species extinction has increased by a thousand in the past 100 years, and with it, wanton abuse of animals slated for human use has increased exponentially. When one actually stops and seriously takes a look at some of this abuse, it’s hard to turn away. In fact for many people witnessing such abuse consumes them. For each animal activist turned cynical by observing animals and their human abusers there is another who equally fights for the rights of women, gay rights, communities of color, or fights against war. I am one of them; I believe in love and liberation and in doing so I see a need to value liberation for everyone, not just the most privileged species on the planet.”


Catch Andy at the following events or see (Sparrow Project site) for more information.

July 1, “Perspectives on Liberation” Presentation, Irvine, CA

July 2, Presentation & Video Screening on the Uganda Skate & Solidarity Project, Los Angeles, CA


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