Exploring Animal Advocacy And The ‘Radical Flank Effect’
Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) formed in 1999, with the express goal of shutting down the largest animal testing laboratory in Europe: Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS). SHAC was surprisingly successful. Their activities helped to lower the price of HLS stock and caused them to lose many business partners. The authorities eventually broke up SHAC and HLS returned to normal functioning, but their shared history gives an insight into successful protest strategies. Of particular note is the relationship between SHAC’s moderate, aboveground wings and its radical, covert wings. The former would stage sit-ins, protests, and other forms of civil disobedience; the latter would attack HLS executives and sabotage HLS property. This article is a sociological study on the effects of the radical sections of protest movements on more moderate sections, with SHAC as a case study.
To do their study, researchers conducted in-depth interviews with moderate SHAC members and HLS executives. The moderate activists recognized that much of the campaign’s success was due to the actions of its radical wing, which was responsible for most hostile media coverage of the movement. Some saw this as detrimental, but the organizers noted that it made their movement seem much more dangerous than it really was, which spurred businesses to disassociate from HLS for fear of becoming targets themselves. Many of those businesses claimed that their decision to disassociate from HLS was an ethical one. Yet, HLS organizers said in interviews that their business partners mainly disassociated due to their own fear of retaliation from the radical wing of SHAC. The moderate wing officially distanced itself from the radical wing so as to uphold its innocence and its ability to deny any knowledge of the radical wing’s actions, but it also did not explicitly condemn the radical wing’s actions.
The study examines the effect of radical action in three arenas: the state, public, and corporate arenas. In the state arena, the actions of the radical wing were largely responsible for the government taking increased interest in, and action against, SHAC. While police largely accept peaceful acts of civil disobedience, violence against people and property is not tolerated, and is often met with harsh repression. In this case, the police did not direct the repression at the radicals themselves, but at the moderates who did not denounce them. In the public arena, the radicals had a similar negative effect: While the public largely receive animal rights protests well, the same is not true for what can be seen as “acts of economic terrorism.” Even though moderates attempted to distance themselves from radicals, the public was not so discerning. Public approval of SHAC decreased as acts of violence by its supporters increased. This lack of public approval enabled the government to repress SHAC with relatively little pushback.
The radical wing was most effective in intimidating corporate bodies—so much so that they would cut ties with HLS. The radical wing made the cost of cutting ties less than the cost of remaining partnered. While businesses may have lost money from disassociating with HLS, they would not have made themselves the target of violence. However, as government increasingly repressed the radical wing of SHAC, SHAC’s capacity to intimidate businesses decreased. Businesses began to reconnect with HLS. SHAC’s decentralized organization enabled it to evade law enforcement for years, but law enforcement was eventually able to cripple the group by going after its high-level moderate organizers. Without the above-ground movement, the underground radical wing lost public support, leading to its decline.
Finally, the study discusses the Radical Flank Dilemma, which describes how radicals often achieve better results than moderates, but how they also increase the likelihood of government repression and public disapproval of the movement as a whole. Moderates may actually face greater risk than radicals in some instances, because authorities often target them as organizers and leaders. In the case of SHAC, moderates noted that they knew the risks of associating with radicals, but felt that they needed to show solidarity and unity in the face of government repression. This level of unity maintained the intimidation factor that was necessary for SHAC to achieve its goals. The author notes that this is only true in cases of cooperative radical and moderate flanks. In cases where the two flanks compete, the progress of each flank is largely independent. Movements in which the moderates and radicals cooperate actually make it easier for the moderates to distinguish themselves, though this comes with greater risk of repression.
In conclusion, the author argues that we need to examine the effects of radical flanks on protest movements over time and need to consider the relationship between radical and moderate wings. Plus, we must look at the effects of radicals on various arenas, including the government, the public, and the corporate world. This approach to researching different factions within a movement will provide a more detailed and nuanced look at the success and failure of social movements, and could help animal advocates formulate more nuanced and all-encompassing strategies going forward.