From Sunday, Nov. 16 until this Saturday, Nov. 22, Vassar Animal Rights Coalition (VARC) is hosting an event week entitled “The Terrorization of Dissent” in honor of the just-released anthology of the same name, to which guests of the lecture series contributed. The week will include a series of lectures themed around the government’s labeling of animal rights and environmental activists as terrorists, the free speech-chilling Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA), and recent “ag-gag” laws. The events are co-sponsored by the Vassar Greens, Amnesty International, Democracy Matters, FemAlliance and the Political Science and Geography departments.
The first speaker, who gave a lecture this past Sunday, Jason Del Gandio, is Editor of “The Terrorization of Dissent” anthology and Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Public Advocacy at Temple University. Del Gandio shed light on the AETA and its implications that have fallen largely under the radar of mainstream circles, due in major part to its passage in 2006 in a stealthy manner with minimal debate by a voice vote of only five House representatives, despite the more than 250 social advocacy groups that opposed the act. Del Gandio talked about the passage of the law in the wake of Sept. 11, a very different time when people were afraid and anything that was labeled as “terrorism” received the full attention of the Federal Government.
The AETA targets animal rights activists by labeling them as domestic terrorists. Del Gandio argued that the act was the result of the Federal Government and corporations coming together to stop animal rights activists by labeling them as terrorists if they inhibit a corporation’s ability to make a profit. Trespassing, harassment, vandalism and threats are all considered violations of the act, and animal rights activist groups have been arrested and labeled terrorists for variations of these violations including leaving flyers at coffee shops and chalking slogans on public sidewalks.
Del Gandio sought to point out specific problems with the act, labeling it “overly vague and strategically ambiguous.” He asserted that the language of the act allows for multiple interpretations and that the actions outlined in the act are already illegal, thus the legislation is unnecessary. Del Gandio went even further and claimed that animal rights activists were the furthest thing from violent, while many other systems that Americans base their life on are inherently violent. Del Gandio stated, “I would argue that capitalism, by its very nature, does harm to people on a daily basis. Furthermore, how much violence do you think has contributed to the founding of, maintaining of and defense of the nation state?” Lastly, he discussed the violence of the food system in terms of the mistreatment of animals. Del Gandio ended his lecture by urging the audience to spread awareness about the AETA, as the “AETA affects all activism. People concerned with social change and people concerned with the first amendment should be concerned about this legislation.”
VARC Co-President and event coordinator Alessandra Seiter ’16 was pleased with the first event to kick off the week. She said, “Jason gave a fantastic overview of the AETA and its implications not only for animal rights activists, but for everyone working toward social justice. He’s a super dynamic speaker with tons of experience from his professorship at Temple University in Philadelphia, which definitely came through during the entire lecture but especially during the Q&A.”
Seiter continued, “He also has a long history of social justice activism, and it was cool to see him merging activism with the academy (we so often dichotomize the two).”
The second lecture in the series occurred this Tuesday, Nov. 18 and was given by Odette Wilkens, Executive Director of the Equal Justice Alliance and established lawyer. Wilkens went into depth about the AETA and its flaws and joked about its parallels. Wilkens remarked, “The AETA reminds me of an onion because the more you peel it, the more it smells and the more it makes you cry.” She described the excessive penalties that could occur from the law, including up to 20 years in prison for effecting profit losses. She finished her lecture by comparing animal rights activists, deemed terrorists, to other extreme political activists such as anti-abortionists and white supremacists, who have committed much more violent and terroristic acts, yet are not considered terrorists under the law. Wilkens urged the audience to take action by contacting local legislators so that when a coalition is made and an appeal bill is introduced, there will be support behind it.
In terms of the importance of the events this week, VARC feels that—given the huge numbers of self-identified social justice activists in Vassar’s student body, as well as the many activist orgs on campus—the AETA and government repression of activists in general provides an immensely important topic to which to alert the Vassar campus.
According to a statement by VARC, “If we don’t educate ourselves about and take mass action against the issues covered in our event week, then a great many Vassar students will find themselves facing serious punishment for their future social justice advocacy.”
The remaining lectures in the series will occur on Thursday, Nov. 20 at 5 p.m. in Rocky 300 and Will Potter, acclaimed journalist and author of “Green is the New Red” will lead the talk. Lastly, on Saturday, Nov. 22, from 1 to 3 p.m. in the Faculty Parlor, there will be a group discussion with campus activists.