Ring of Fire

Photo by Joe Klein

“Who knows the end? What has risen may sink, and what has sunk may rise. Loathsomeness waits and dreams in the deep, and decay spreads over the tottering cities of men.”

—H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu

“I had a dream the other night,” David Agranoff says, laughing. “I’m not making this up — I had a dream about eating peanut-braised tofu!” Agranoff wears a tan prison jump suit and blue canvas slip-ons. His eyes are slightly sunken and his skin is sallow, probably because for the past 73 days, he has only been allowed outdoors for an hour a week, and the vegan offerings at San Diego’s Metropolitan Correctional Center leave something to be desired. In the course of his first 10 weeks of incarceration, Agranoff has eaten, he estimates, 160 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, “and I’m getting pretty darned sick of them,” he says with a smile that might seem bitter if he wasn’t having such an obvious good time talking about food. “Two pieces of bread with Veganaise and two fried bricks of tofu is my favorite thing in the world, and I literally had forgotten what it tastes like. I woke up and thought, ‘Oh my God, this is crazy — I’m dreaming about tofu! What the hell is wrong with this picture?’” To answer his question we have to leave this tiny, glass-walled interview room a few well-secured floors above downtown San Diego and travel two and a half years back in time to August of 2003. It was billed as “Revolution Summer,” though it wasn’t meant to be a particularly incendiary affair, just a series of protests and events organized by various local progressive groups. Compassion for Farm Animals, the organization founded by Agranoff and his wife when they moved to California from the Midwest, was in charge of animal-rights week, so they planned a rally in front of a nearby McDonald’s and a trip to a dairy farm up in Norco. (“Our big campaign at the time was ‘California Cows Are Tortured Cows,’?” Agranoff explains.) They also invited Rodney Coronado out from Tucson to give a talk. Coronado had been a hero of Agranoff’s for years. He first made the news in 1986 for using ordinary hand tools to sink two whaling ships docked in Iceland. (Agranoff was 12 years old at the time, and living in Bloomington, Indiana. He had just lost his mother to a stroke and was searching for solace in unlikely places, mainly the novels of Clive Barker and Stephen King.) Coronado went underground for several years, but in the early 1990s he was tied to a series of Animal Liberation Front arson attacks on mink farms and animal-research labs. Four of his associates were jailed for refusing to testify before a grand jury investigating the crimes. Coronado was nonetheless convicted in 1995, and was serving a 57-month sentence in a federal penitentiary when he first received a letter from a young David Agranoff, who had been led to veganism and animal-rights activism via the straight-edge punk scene. After his release in 1999, Coronado became the most visible spokesman for the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front. Earlier this year, an FBI counterterrorism official told a Senate subcommittee that the two groups (if “group” is the right word for a looser than loose network of anonymous individuals united only by shared ideals and a willingness to leave the letters ELF or ALF at the often-smoldering scenes of their actions) together form “one of today’s most serious domestic threats” and are “way out in front” of “right-wing extremists, KKK, anti-abortion groups and the like.” Agranoff expected an enthusiastic crowd for Coronado's talk. Coronado flew in from Tucson on the morning of August 1. Several hours before his plane landed, someone set fire to a construction site at University Town Centre, in northern San Diego. A five-story, 206-unit condominium project burned to the ground, causing $50 million in damage. The flames could be seen for miles. “It looked like sunrise,” one fireman said at the time. The arsonists left a banner at the scene. “If you build it, we will burn it,” it read. “The E.L.F.s are mad.” That evening, Agranoff brought Coronado to the gay and lesbian community center where the lecture was to take place. About 120 people crowded into the hall, along with a surprising number of reporters. Agranoff was excited by the turnout and, he says, only learned about the morning’s arson — which would turn out to be the largest act of ecosabotage in American history, causing as much financial damage as all previous ELF attacks combined — when a news crew asked him and Coronado for a comment. Coronado, who claims he had no prior knowledge of the attack, answered that he supported “any action taken to preserve open space... It’s become a legitimate response to urban sprawl.” Agranoff — who says he has no problem with arson as a political tactic, but questions the wisdom of its use in wildfire-prone Southern California — kept quiet. “I had no idea what had happened,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘That’s weird timing.’” The authorities thought so too. At the protest Compassion for Farm Animals had planned at McDonald’s the next day, “the police presence was insane,” Agranoff says. After the rally, police followed the activists (Coronado had gone to L.A. immediately after the lecture) to Balboa Park, and stood by while they picnicked on vegan treats. “We were a security threat,” Agranoff laughs, “having a picnic.” The next morning, when they left for the Norco dairy tour, squad cars trailed behind them. Riverside Sheriff's deputies picked up the tail when they crossed the county line. “When we got back,” Agranoff says, “our house had been broken into and my van was gone. Broad daylight, Sunday afternoon.” Oddly, he says, the only thing missing was his computer. His television and stereo were untouched, as was an open jar stuffed full of cash that had been sitting beside the computer. Agranoff was sleeping when the phone rang early the next morning. It was the police. His van had been found not far from his house. (“The engine was blown, so they only got a couple of blocks.”) He got on his bike and rode over. The officer waiting with his van asked him for his ID, and he gave it to him. When the officer asked if he had any tattoos, “I said, ‘I don’t understand why that’s relevant. I’m here to pick up my stolen van,’” Agranoff recalls. “[The officer] said, ‘Get down on the ground.’ He pulled out his gun. So I got down. And then he said, ‘Your name has just come up in a terrorist investigation.’ Terrorist? I pass out veggie burgers!” In the end the officer sent him home without his van, which the police impounded for a few days. About two weeks later, Agranoff, who works as a teacher at a school for autistic children, was at home on summer vacation. A self-described “Asian-action-movie freak,” he was watching a Korean action film on DVD at 9 in the morning when someone came knocking. He opened the door and found, he says, “a gun in my face.” It was the FBI. They had a search warrant, and “went running through the house with their guns drawn.” At that point Agranoff and his wife had six rabbits (they’re now down to three: Luna, Lily and Yuen P. Newton, “the revolutionary rabbit”), and Agranoff was worried for his pets. “The rabbits started freaking out. I was afraid one of them would jump around and [the agents] would just cock off a round.” No rabbits were harmed. The FBI took videotapes, a video camera and a computer Agranoff had borrowed from a friend. Two weeks later the FBI searched an apartment shared by two other activists, Kathryn Dougherty and Michael Cardenas. They took just one item, Dougherty said at the time: a videotape of Rod Coronado’s August 1 lecture. The next two years were uneventful. Agranoff’s group put out a newsletter and posted a Web site listing local vegan resources. They organized a vegan business fair and went to anti-war rallies around the state. In the summer, they handed out samples of tofu ice cream in Balboa Park. In the fall, they passed out plates of Tofurky and mashed potatoes with vegan gravy. It wasn’t until this June that two men in suits arrived at the school where Agranoff works and presented him with a subpoena requiring him to testify before a federal grand jury investigating the University Town Centre arson. But when Agranoff appeared before the grand jury, he says, he was not asked about the fire. Federal prosecutors seemed almost exclusively interested in the speech Rod Coronado had given the following evening, particularly in the Q&A that followed the lecture, during which Coronado showed the audience how he had made the bombs that ultimately landed him in prison. (Legislation sponsored by Senator Dianne Feinstein in 1997 made it a federal crime to share information about “the making or use of an explosive” with the intent that the information be used to break the law, even if the information shared is readily available from other sources.) Agranoff refused to answer the prosecutor’s questions. A federal investigation of an open public meeting, he said, posed a serious threat to the freedom of speech and assembly. “I will not take part in what I know in my heart is my oppression and harassment,” he wrote in a July 28 letter filed with the court. “They can hold me forever and I will not change my mind.” The U.S. Attorney’s Office had granted him immunity from prosecution, which meant that he had no recourse to Fifth Amendment protections against self-incrimination. (It also suggests that the prosecutors, who would not comment on the grand-jury investigation, never considered him a suspect of any serious crime.) Judge Irma Gonzalez found him in contempt of court, and ordered that he be imprisoned at the Metropolitan Correction Center until he agreed to cooperate. So on this sunny fall afternoon, Agranoff sits with his legs crossed in a cramped fluorescent-lit room. He’s happy to be out of his cell, and happy for the chance to talk. His incarceration, he speculates, is intended only to send the message “that you don’t tell the government, ‘No.’ That’s the only reason I’m here.” In Agranoff’s view, the grand jury investigation has little to do with the University Town Centre fire, and more with silencing Rod Coronado. Other activists called before the grand jury were also asked extensively about Coronado’s talk, and only very minimally about the arson. (About a dozen were subpoenaed along with Agranoff. Two of them, Danae Kelley and Nicole Fink, were also jailed for refusing to testify.) Ironically, Coronado himself has never denied that he showed the audience how to construct a simple explosive, and is fully expecting to be indicted when the grand jury’s term expires at the end of this month. More broadly, Agranoff says, the grand jury is being used to cast as wide a net as possible over a movement that, however Dr. Dolittle-y its poultry-friendly pronouncements may sometimes sound, is perceived by the government as a serious threat. (At the same time that subpoenas went out in San Diego, another grand jury was convened in San Francisco to investigate the 2003 bombing of an Emeryville biotech firm.) “The Feds target us more than they do the Aryan Brotherhood and all those people, because those groups just threaten to hurt people. The Animal Liberation Front and the Earth Liberation Front are a threat to capitalism,” Agranoff says. “The industries that turn animals into food are such an entrenched part of our society that the very idea of people who are eloquent, effective ambassadors for animal rights turns us into public enemy No. 1.” For Agranoff, the choice was clear. “Why would I help them tear down the movement I have fought for for 13 years?” he asks. Everybody knows — I’m sure the prosecutors’ mothers know — that I’m not going to testify. If I’m here 120 days or 365 days, I’m not going to testify.” And despite the food and the daily indignities and deprivations of prison life, it hasn’t been that bad. Agranoff has had plenty of time to read — about three books a week, he says — and he’s written 100 pages of a novel, “probably 15 short stories,” and another 10 or 20 pieces of ultra-short flash fiction, not to mention letters to family and friends. Standing up to a grand jury wins you a certain degree of instant respect in prison, and the other inmates have made sure Agranoff has been well taken care of. “They’ve been very nice,” he says. Still, for someone used to spending most of his time among progressive activists, the open racism, homophobia and misogyny that dominate prison life have been hard to take. It all sometimes feels, he says, a bit like the Star Trek episode where Kirk and Co. “end up going to a parallel dimension where everyone’s evil and Spock has a beard.” Some things, however, keep it in perspective. The first weekend that he was in jail, his wife and a friend trucked several hundred chickens from an egg farm to a sanctuary for liberated farm animals. The birds had lived past their egg-laying prime and were due to be slaughtered. When his wife told him about the rescue over the prison pay phone, Agranoff felt like crying, he says. “Okay, so I live in a fucking toilet with another guy. I can handle that. I’m not one of those animals suffering on those farms. It could be worse.” Eleven days later, Agranoff’s hair is gelled wet into a short, Clark Kent–ish twist. He wears camouflage shorts and a black T-shirt that says, “Vegan Straightedge” in white letters. Some color has returned to his skin. He’s just finished a soy-bacon cheeseburger, and he’s sitting in the sun in the courtyard of a vegan restaurant. The previous week, on Agranoff's 80th day behind bars, Judge Gonzalez had called him to court and, convinced at last that further incarceration would not coerce him into testifying, ordered his release. Kelley and Fink have now also been freed, and though Agranoff would much rather be here than back at the correctional center, he is hardly in a celebratory mood. “Yes, the First Amendment won in the end,” he says, “but it took two-and-a-half months of my life.” And, of course, everything that Agranoff is fighting still stands — the vast edifice of animal exploitation and the myriad forms of destruction that flow from it: pollution, desertification, deforestation, global warming, heart disease, mad cow, bird flu, wars for oil. “There is no wrecking ball against the planet like the meat, dairy and egg industry,” Agranoff says, and rolls off a litany of statistics: “One-third of all resources used for anything in the entire country goes to the production of meat, dairy and eggs”; dairy cows create 20 to 40 times more solid waste than humans; fish carry nine times more pollution in their flesh than can be found in the water around them; it takes 16 pounds of grain to produce a single pound of beef, not to mention many hundreds of gallons of water and entire petrochemical and pharmaceutical industries devoted to the production of fertilizer, hormones and antibiotics. “If the Earth is dying and we’re in the noose, one of the biggest things that exists in the fiber in that noose is humankind’s relationship with animals.” Agranoff sings the praises of veganism, and when he talks about it, it sounds less like a set of dietary restrictions than a faith complete with conversion narratives. (Agranoff gave up meat as a teen when the guitarist from a straight-edge band confronted him: “‘You say you’re for freedom, but you have the souls of thousands laying prisoner in your bowels.’ It was so cheesy,” Agranoff laughs, “but it hit me.”) It has realms of esoteric knowledge, tight communal bonds, obligations to proselytize, opportunities for martyrdom, and, of course, a complete vision of the apocalypse, if not of any subsequent redemption. More than that, though, Agranoff’s worldview resembles the metaphysical outlook of the sci-fi and horror novels he’s loved since he was a kid. It’s a Lovecraftian vision of a damned world in which a thin crust of rational coherence tenuously conceals a hideous, oozing chaos of violence, suffering and doom. “Underneath all this,” he says, waving his hand to indicate not just the plastic tables and sun umbrellas around us, but the entire city behind them and the world that yawns beyond it, “there’s a lot of forces that people don’t witness on the surface. But when you become a vegan and an activist and you’re trying to change things, you open your eyes a lot. You see the mechanics behind it and it becomes impossible not to want to fight,” he laughs, “to tear it all down.”

Also this week, Judith Lewis' article about the Earth Liberation Front, and if it even really exists.


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