Target of the week

Posted: May 31, 2004 12:00 AM

 Animal-rights activists went to the home of a Chiron employee one night last year to send a message. They pounded on her front door, rang her doorbell and shouted, "Open the door," followed by an epithet. Another night, they shouted through bullhorns and then bragged about it on the Internet. Someone also exploded two pipe bombs in her workplace.
Her crime? She was a paralegal for the Chiron Corp. in Emeryville, Calif., which engages in animal research to develop vaccines and other lifesaving products. It was her bad luck that Chiron had contracted with the animal-research firm Huntingdon Life Sciences -- and worse luck that animal-rights activists had formed a group committed to putting Huntingdon out of business, a group that was willing to intimidate any individual toward that end.

 Last week, the feds indicted seven members of the group Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty -- including three Pinole, Calif., residents -- for stalking, harassing and intimidating employees at Huntingdon, Chiron and other concerns. The courts will decide if these individuals are guilty as charged. A SHAC spokesperson told the San Francisco Chronicle the charges are "completely unfounded" and then said this is "a classic First Amendment case."

 But does SHAC understand the First Amendment is not a license to intimidate?

 The group started in England, where Huntingdon had its headquarters, and began what authorities call "tertiary targeting." As Frankie Trull of the Foundation for Biomedical Research explained, harassing medical researchers doesn't work because they won't quit the work they love. "But if you are a company that provides financial or banking services, and you have to empty your building two days in a row for bomb threats, you are not going to put your employees in jeopardy for one customer," said Trull.

 SHAC determined that if activists targeted banks, insurers and auditors, they could isolate Huntingdon from the services it needed to stay in business. The group used vandalism and intimidation against banks until Huntingdon could no longer hold a bank account. Aware of the consequences to medical research if Huntingdon failed, the British government took the unheard-of step of giving Huntingdon a Bank of England account.

 The group also targeted shareholders and service providers. Last year, a two-week-long harassment campaign prompted the auditing firm Deloitte & Touche to drop Huntingdon. In fact, SHAC had started to name a "target of the week."

 In the sights: employees of companies SHAC wanted to scare away from doing business with Huntington. Activists would gather personal information on workers and then post on the Internet not only the employees' names but also their home addresses, phone and license-plate numbers, spouses' names, children's names and the schools the children attended.

 Once, activists discovered that a Chiron toxicology worker belonged to an orienteering club. Then, according to the indictment, activists e-mailed club members seeking "personal or embarrassing information." When the information wasn't forthcoming, SHAC posted data on other club members.

 Chiron spokesman John Gallagher told me that while the indictment cites two of the employee victims, several others experienced "home visits," vandalism and credit-card fraud.

 "I would actually argue that tertiary targeting has not been successful," said Alastair Newton of the British Consulate in New York. "It was SHAC's stated aim in 1999 that they would put Huntingdon Life Sciences out of business in three years. Patently they have failed."

 But in the process, I'm sure he would agree, innocent people are being terrorized in their own homes. Their children are being frightened, their spouses are being threatened, and SHAC has celebrated each cruel act against people as a victory. SHAC boasted on its Web site that activists haunted a Huntingdon employee who "had car windows broken, tires slashed, house spray painted with slogans. His wife is reportedly on the brink of a nervous breakdown and divorce."

 "They're the No. 1 domestic-terror threat," Chiron's Gallagher said. "It's not Aryan Nation. It's not the Klan." It is groups like SHAC.

 One midnight, as they left a bullhorn session in front of a worker's home, the zealots shouted, "Did you tuck your family into bed and explain why we were out there, or were you too cowardly to be home? Either way, we win. Because we always win."

 But if they win, they beat up on more than innocent people. They'll also beat up on medical advancement.