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SPEAKING FOR THOSE WHO CAN’T SPEAK FOR THEMSELVES

Hindsight: On Civil Disobedience

Tom Regan interview by Laura Moretti • The Animals Voice • January 17, 1987

While speaking at the Schweitzer Center in Berkeley, CA, on behalf of animal rights, author/activist Tom Regan granted us an interview in return for a leisurely lunch. We asked him, due to the increasing trend in California toward civil disobedience, what his views were on this matter, as well as on the issue of animal liberation.

Are you a supporter of civil disobedience?

I’m a strong supporter of civil disobedience. I 
engage in it myself. But it has to be chosen wisely. It can’t fill the whole movement. I mean, the movement has to be far more than that, it has to be more diverse than that. Basically, what civil disobedience does is gain publicity; it’s a publicity ploy.

Do you think the kind of publicity we get from civil disobedience does more harm than good? After all, don’t most people see us as bleeding hearts and Bambi-lovers, and now as terrorists?

Yes and no. I was one of the 101 people who occupied the eighth floor of Building 39 at the National Institutes of Health. I don’t think the media presented us poorly there at all. I think the media presented us as a real triumph. And that was because the civil disobedience was very well chosen, was very well organized, very well focused.

I’m a Gandhian. That’s how I got into the movement, from Gandhi. Any movement for social justice has to have civil disobedience. Gandhi was a master at this. But it wasn’t a buckshot approach to civil disobedience. That does nothing.

So when I say I’m an advocate of it, I’m an advocate of it wisely chosen and expertly executed. It’s got to be a winnable issue. That’s what we risk people getting arrested for. If we just go out and protest that something is going on in a particular laboratory and get arrested, we get some publicity, but we haven’t changed a thing because there is no focus.

Civil disobedience should be that toward which we work in a campaign, but it shouldn’t be the thing that fills the campaign. In other words, it should be, again, very Gandhian. What we try to do is cooperate with the opposition. “We don’t want to do this; we want to find some way to get what we want without resorting to this,” etc. And then—when all else fails—then we resort to civil disobedience. It should be the last choice, not the first choice, in a campaign. But we’ve got to have a campaign. You see, we have to have some strategy, we have to have some vision, some focus. We have to know what we want. Now, if we’re going to say, “What we want is all those rats out of that laboratory, 
We want it shut down,” forget it. That’s nothing—

But what about World Day for Laboratory Animals? There’s massive civil disobedience across the country on April 24. Isn’t that strictly for publicity?

Not completely. On that day, in part, we’re telling the world: “Laboratory animals never have a nice day.” But, also, I think, on April 24, there should be national civil disobedience—just for the sake of disobedience, just because it’s the day, the one day of the year when we say to the research establishment, “We’re going to make your life as miserable as we can.” That’s the one day when vivisectionists don’t have a nice day.

But the buckshot approach to civil disobedience for the sake of publicity plays into the hands of the media. The public’s perception of the movement is the media’s perception of the movement. So if we’re just out there protesting, protesting, protesting, and a bunch of people get arrested, it may actually look like “those animal radical crazies,” and that’s what the public sees.

The National Institutes of Health civil disobedience should be the recipe for how to use civil disobedience. And I can’t think of any other civil disobedience cases like that one that have been really effective on the 
research establishment and public’s opinion regarding 
the animal rights movement.

For civil disobedience to succeed as something other than a publicity ploy, we have to get the sympathy, empathy, and moral backing of the public on our side. The people who are watching will finally have to say, “You know, I think these people are right.” And that, again, is what [Martin Luther] King was great at, and Gandhi was especially good at it. Finally, the politicians, the people in power, the public at large, believe the protesters are right. Then we’re talking; then we have power.

But first, I think we’ve got to create a kind of 
reasoned fear in the opposition. The establishment 
will say, “If you resort to civil disobedience, I’m in trouble.” Otherwise, they couldn’t care less. We’re a nuisance; we’re like a pest. We’re not anything politically serious. There’s nothing to fear from us.

Sometimes power is just the threat of civil disobedience. It’s no threat if we haven’t got a well-published campaign. Once the people working toward social change begin to realize that they can count on civil disobedience as a tactic, once they understand that the people in power are losing the confidence of the people who are watching, then all we have to say is, “Look, 
I don’t want to have this place occupied tomorrow morning,” and they’ll say, “Oh, well, let’s talk then 
so we can avoid it.”

Greenpeace activists have the power, wouldn’t you say? There they are between harpoon gun and whale.

Especially when it’s a Russian ship out there, you see. That immediately calls for all the sympathy for these people. When the ordinary John and Jane Doe watch this, who are they for? They’re for the people in those boats. It’s got to mean something. We’ve got to choose the image, choose the vulnerability. Where is the establishment vulnerable? The National Institutes of Health case was fabulous in this respect. And we’ll do it again, we’ll do it very effectively. And I want to be with my nose right up against the glass of the establishment when we do it.

Then what are your views about animal liberationists? Haven’t they removed not only animals from laboratories, but also videos and photographs that do more damage than anything an individual protester could ever accomplish? And they’re doing it mostly for the publicity, aren’t they?

And I think there’s a way to avoid animal liberation activities, and that is for the establishment to do what April 24 asks them to do: allow unannounced access into research facilities by qualified representatives 
of the animal rights movement, such as MDs, nurses, 
veterinarians, medical technicians, people who know what goes on in a laboratory. And then, if they’ll allow that, it seems like a perfectly reasonable check against collusion on the part of the government and the research establishment. Then people don’t have to break into labs to find out what’s going on in there. There’s 
a perfectly sensible way out of this. They’re not going to give it to us without kicking and screaming, so until they do, as regrettable as it is, I think we have to do it illegally.

But, what I think is essential—it’s just like civil disobedience again—we have to understand the public and what we’re trying to do. With covert illegal act-ivities we’re trying to rouse empathy, sympathy, and concern of the public for what we’re talking about. That means we have to deal with the prejudices of the public; that’s the irony of it. So if we go in and show a bunch of frogs in a small aquarium or something, the public is not going to turn on this because the public doesn’t care a whole lot about frogs. And I’m not saying that I like it when all these frogs are being mistreated; it’s just that what we’re trying to do is reach the public.

So we have to choose very smartly about what it 
is we reveal and how we reveal it, what animals we choose, where the public is vulnerable. They’re going to be responsive. They’re going to be responsive about dogs and cats, maybe primates a little bit, but they just don’t care much about most laboratory animals.

Of course, some of animal liberation doesn’t have anything to do with animal cruelty. It has more to do with taking evidence that destroys the credibility of the research establishment.

Exactly. The thing about the film, Unnecessary Fuss, that was so good wasn’t just that it showed what they were doing to the animals; it was revealing the character and the attitudes of these people who were doing it. It was absolutely damning.

What about liberators who vandalize, destroy 
research equipment, etc.?

I’m against vandalizing for lots of reasons, not the least of which is that it’s bad strategy. What happens when you vandalize a lab is that it becomes the story. The story is not what was in that lab or what the animals were; it becomes, “these vandals went 
in and stole animals.” So it plays right into the hands of the research establishment.

When we left the National Institutes of Health, 
we ran the sweepers, we washed the windows, we cleaned up, we polished. We made it as clean as it could be. All the signs were taken down, no spray paint, none of that stuff. It would just be detrimental. We were what I called Norman Rockwell radicals. We were middle America at a sit-in, and that’s very important to appear that way and to be that way.

However, what I think is right strategy and right psychology is for the people who liberate animals 
to come forth and identify themselves as the people who did it. And this is what is really hard to do, and a lot of people are going to turn off on me right there.

But the reason it’s right strategically and right psychologically is because what it says is that they are confident enough when they broke in, that what they were going to reveal was going to be so powerful in terms of turning public opinion, that the public is going to sympathize with them. When they come forward and say, “We’re the ones who did this,” now it’s really civil disobedience. They’ve come back and are saying, “Punish us.” Here’s the devastatingly horrible stuff that the system denies, covers up, and here they are, risking arrest, trial, and imprisonment, but that’s the price I think those kind of activists have to face.

If they’re really going to perform the most important function for the movement—that is, to continue to sustain the story—that’s why it’s right strategy. As it is now, there’s a break in, some stuff comes out, it gets dispersed, it gets forgotten. Now what sustains the story?

What sustains the story is someone is getting punished. The story stays alive. It’s right strategy. And what it says to the public is, “You cannot trust the government. You cannot trust the researchers. Here we are, up against the system. What the research establishment is doing to animals is so wrong, we’re willing to go to jail over it.” And the public will be more sympathetic.

[laughing] But I don’t know anybody else who believes this.

Any advice for April 24?

Yes. Because of the media’s interest, we have to be mindful of why we are there and what we hope to accomplish. We’ll be watched as much as we’ll be listened to. Perhaps more so. The last thing animals need is another person to ignore what’s in their best interest. We must be absolutely certain we do not 
provide one.

Shall we be peaceful, civil, non-violent? Yes. That is the 
order of the day. But obedient? Not on this occasion. The spirit of April 24 demands that we go that one step further in our 
activism. We must be ready to violate the law, risk arrest, go to jail—not alone. Together. Throughout the entire nation. For the animals. On that day, we join hands across America and disrupt the daily business of vivisection.

Be there.


Tom served as President of the Board of 
Directors of The Animals Voice from the late 1980s into the early 1990s, and was instrumental in our magazine’s early successes.

To learn more about Tom, visit our memorial page here.

Hindsight: On Civil Disobedience

Tom Regan interview by Laura Moretti • The Animals Voice • January 17, 1987

While speaking at the Schweitzer Center in Berkeley, CA, on behalf of animal rights, author/activist Tom Regan granted us an interview in return for a leisurely lunch. We asked him, due to the increasing trend in California toward civil disobedience, what his views were on this matter, as well as on the issue of animal liberation.

Are you a supporter of civil disobedience?

I’m a strong supporter of civil disobedience. I 
engage in it myself. But it has to be chosen wisely. It can’t fill the whole movement. I mean, the movement has to be far more than that, it has to be more diverse than that. Basically, what civil disobedience does is gain publicity; it’s a publicity ploy.

Do you think the kind of publicity we get from civil disobedience does more harm than good? After all, don’t most people see us as bleeding hearts and Bambi-lovers, and now as terrorists?

Yes and no. I was one of the 101 people who occupied the eighth floor of Building 39 at the National Institutes of Health. I don’t think the media presented us poorly there at all. I think the media presented us as a real triumph. And that was because the civil disobedience was very well chosen, was very well organized, very well focused.

I’m a Gandhian. That’s how I got into the movement, from Gandhi. Any movement for social justice has to have civil disobedience. Gandhi was a master at this. But it wasn’t a buckshot approach to civil disobedience. That does nothing.

So when I say I’m an advocate of it, I’m an advocate of it wisely chosen and expertly executed. It’s got to be a winnable issue. That’s what we risk people getting arrested for. If we just go out and protest that something is going on in a particular laboratory and get arrested, we get some publicity, but we haven’t changed a thing because there is no focus.

Civil disobedience should be that toward which we work in a campaign, but it shouldn’t be the thing that fills the campaign. In other words, it should be, again, very Gandhian. What we try to do is cooperate with the opposition. “We don’t want to do this; we want to find some way to get what we want without resorting to this,” etc. And then—when all else fails—then we resort to civil disobedience. It should be the last choice, not the first choice, in a campaign. But we’ve got to have a campaign. You see, we have to have some strategy, we have to have some vision, some focus. We have to know what we want. Now, if we’re going to say, “What we want is all those rats out of that laboratory, 
We want it shut down,” forget it. That’s nothing—

But what about World Day for Laboratory Animals? There’s massive civil disobedience across the country on April 24. Isn’t that strictly for publicity?

Not completely. On that day, in part, we’re telling the world: “Laboratory animals never have a nice day.” But, also, I think, on April 24, there should be national civil disobedience—just for the sake of disobedience, just because it’s the day, the one day of the year when we say to the research establishment, “We’re going to make your life as miserable as we can.” That’s the one day when vivisectionists don’t have a nice day.

But the buckshot approach to civil disobedience for the sake of publicity plays into the hands of the media. The public’s perception of the movement is the media’s perception of the movement. So if we’re just out there protesting, protesting, protesting, and a bunch of people get arrested, it may actually look like “those animal radical crazies,” and that’s what the public sees.

The National Institutes of Health civil disobedience should be the recipe for how to use civil disobedience. And I can’t think of any other civil disobedience cases like that one that have been really effective on the 
research establishment and public’s opinion regarding 
the animal rights movement.

For civil disobedience to succeed as something other than a publicity ploy, we have to get the sympathy, empathy, and moral backing of the public on our side. The people who are watching will finally have to say, “You know, I think these people are right.” And that, again, is what [Martin Luther] King was great at, and Gandhi was especially good at it. Finally, the politicians, the people in power, the public at large, believe the protesters are right. Then we’re talking; then we have power.

But first, I think we’ve got to create a kind of 
reasoned fear in the opposition. The establishment 
will say, “If you resort to civil disobedience, I’m in trouble.” Otherwise, they couldn’t care less. We’re a nuisance; we’re like a pest. We’re not anything politically serious. There’s nothing to fear from us.

Sometimes power is just the threat of civil disobedience. It’s no threat if we haven’t got a well-published campaign. Once the people working toward social change begin to realize that they can count on civil disobedience as a tactic, once they understand that the people in power are losing the confidence of the people who are watching, then all we have to say is, “Look, 
I don’t want to have this place occupied tomorrow morning,” and they’ll say, “Oh, well, let’s talk then 
so we can avoid it.”

Greenpeace activists have the power, wouldn’t you say? There they are between harpoon gun and whale.

Especially when it’s a Russian ship out there, you see. That immediately calls for all the sympathy for these people. When the ordinary John and Jane Doe watch this, who are they for? They’re for the people in those boats. It’s got to mean something. We’ve got to choose the image, choose the vulnerability. Where is the establishment vulnerable? The National Institutes of Health case was fabulous in this respect. And we’ll do it again, we’ll do it very effectively. And I want to be with my nose right up against the glass of the establishment when we do it.

Then what are your views about animal liberationists? Haven’t they removed not only animals from laboratories, but also videos and photographs that do more damage than anything an individual protester could ever accomplish? And they’re doing it mostly for the publicity, aren’t they?

And I think there’s a way to avoid animal liberation activities, and that is for the establishment to do what April 24 asks them to do: allow unannounced access into research facilities by qualified representatives 
of the animal rights movement, such as MDs, nurses, 
veterinarians, medical technicians, people who know what goes on in a laboratory. And then, if they’ll allow that, it seems like a perfectly reasonable check against collusion on the part of the government and the research establishment. Then people don’t have to break into labs to find out what’s going on in there. There’s 
a perfectly sensible way out of this. They’re not going to give it to us without kicking and screaming, so until they do, as regrettable as it is, I think we have to do it illegally.

But, what I think is essential—it’s just like civil disobedience again—we have to understand the public and what we’re trying to do. With covert illegal act-ivities we’re trying to rouse empathy, sympathy, and concern of the public for what we’re talking about. That means we have to deal with the prejudices of the public; that’s the irony of it. So if we go in and show a bunch of frogs in a small aquarium or something, the public is not going to turn on this because the public doesn’t care a whole lot about frogs. And I’m not saying that I like it when all these frogs are being mistreated; it’s just that what we’re trying to do is reach the public.

So we have to choose very smartly about what it 
is we reveal and how we reveal it, what animals we choose, where the public is vulnerable. They’re going to be responsive. They’re going to be responsive about dogs and cats, maybe primates a little bit, but they just don’t care much about most laboratory animals.

Of course, some of animal liberation doesn’t have anything to do with animal cruelty. It has more to do with taking evidence that destroys the credibility of the research establishment.

Exactly. The thing about the film, Unnecessary Fuss, that was so good wasn’t just that it showed what they were doing to the animals; it was revealing the character and the attitudes of these people who were doing it. It was absolutely damning.

What about liberators who vandalize, destroy 
research equipment, etc.?

I’m against vandalizing for lots of reasons, not the least of which is that it’s bad strategy. What happens when you vandalize a lab is that it becomes the story. The story is not what was in that lab or what the animals were; it becomes, “these vandals went 
in and stole animals.” So it plays right into the hands of the research establishment.

When we left the National Institutes of Health, 
we ran the sweepers, we washed the windows, we cleaned up, we polished. We made it as clean as it could be. All the signs were taken down, no spray paint, none of that stuff. It would just be detrimental. We were what I called Norman Rockwell radicals. We were middle America at a sit-in, and that’s very important to appear that way and to be that way.

However, what I think is right strategy and right psychology is for the people who liberate animals 
to come forth and identify themselves as the people who did it. And this is what is really hard to do, and a lot of people are going to turn off on me right there.

But the reason it’s right strategically and right psychologically is because what it says is that they are confident enough when they broke in, that what they were going to reveal was going to be so powerful in terms of turning public opinion, that the public is going to sympathize with them. When they come forward and say, “We’re the ones who did this,” now it’s really civil disobedience. They’ve come back and are saying, “Punish us.” Here’s the devastatingly horrible stuff that the system denies, covers up, and here they are, risking arrest, trial, and imprisonment, but that’s the price I think those kind of activists have to face.

If they’re really going to perform the most important function for the movement—that is, to continue to sustain the story—that’s why it’s right strategy. As it is now, there’s a break in, some stuff comes out, it gets dispersed, it gets forgotten. Now what sustains the story?

What sustains the story is someone is getting punished. The story stays alive. It’s right strategy. And what it says to the public is, “You cannot trust the government. You cannot trust the researchers. Here we are, up against the system. What the research establishment is doing to animals is so wrong, we’re willing to go to jail over it.” And the public will be more sympathetic.

[laughing] But I don’t know anybody else who believes this.

Any advice for April 24?

Yes. Because of the media’s interest, we have to be mindful of why we are there and what we hope to accomplish. We’ll be watched as much as we’ll be listened to. Perhaps more so. The last thing animals need is another person to ignore what’s in their best interest. We must be absolutely certain we do not 
provide one.

Shall we be peaceful, civil, non-violent? Yes. That is the 
order of the day. But obedient? Not on this occasion. The spirit of April 24 demands that we go that one step further in our 
activism. We must be ready to violate the law, risk arrest, go to jail—not alone. Together. Throughout the entire nation. For the animals. On that day, we join hands across America and disrupt the daily business of vivisection.

Be there.


Tom served as President of the Board of 
Directors of The Animals Voice from the late 1980s into the early 1990s, and was instrumental in our magazine’s early successes.

To learn more about Tom, visit our memorial page here.