‘To protect and to unnerve’: animal rights activists accuse UCLA of intimidation tactics

February 3, 2011

An undercover UCLA police officer videotapes animal rights activists during a Jan. 15 picket of university researchers who experiment on primates. The group is suing campus police and the UC Board of Regents for harassment and constitutional violations. (Dan Bluemel / LA Activist)

In a quiet Sherman Oaks neighborhood, Pam Ferdin walks up to a car parked on the street. The license plate reads “CA EXEMPT.” Its tinted windows are rolled up and the man sitting in the driver’s seat is barely distinguishable. He is holding a video recorder.

Nearby, a group of animal rights activists are picketing near the home of a UCLA researcher. They are protesting the use of monkeys in his laboratory.

Wearing a bright yellow cap from the National Lawyers Guild that labels her a “legal observer,” Ferdin peers into the abyss of the darkened, driver-side window.

“Excuse me,” she says. “Can you tell us who you are? You are intimidating the activists.”

There is no reply from the man. He continues to videotape her and the demonstrators.

According to these activists, the surveillance targeted at them is part of an intimidation and harassment campaign by the UCLA Police Department. Over a period of roughly four years, they say they’ve been followed, photographed and videotaped.

Now, they’re fighting back with a lawsuit against both the campus police and the UC Board of Regents.

The story begins in 2006: a group of like-minded individuals embarked on an anti-vivisection campaign and targeted UCLA researchers. They’re united with the belief that monkeys were being experimented on unnecessarily in their laboratories. Once or twice a month, they picketed the researchers’ homes. They immediately got the attention of campus police.

They say that police would follow them to each location, including to interim food and bathroom breaks. The surveillance would not stop, even when the day was over and activists would meet at a restaurant for dinner. Police would use the opportunity to take down license plate numbers and continue watching them. Eventually protesters began driving together in a rented van to avoid being needlessly pulled over by campus police.

This tense relationship between activists and police came to a head on May 15, 2010 when 12 protesters were arrested for “focus picketing,” a misdemeanor that states one must be 100 feet from the targeted residence. However, the interpretation of the law is the subject of debate.

Campus police interpreted the law to mean that no one can go within 100 feet of the targeted home. David Liberman, one of the attorneys representing the activists in their lawsuit, interprets the 100-foot rule to mean activists can walk by the home, but cannot focus on the selected residence.

“They have a right to go within 100 feet, as long as they don’t stop and aim all of their noise, communication and expression towards that single residence,” he said.

Before or after May 15, the activists say they have never been warned or arrested by the LAPD. They believe the campus police’s interpretation of the law is influenced by politics. Liberman suspects the UC Board of Regents of having a policy in place that seeks to eliminate animal rights protests in researchers’ neighborhoods. He hopes to have this revealed in the lawsuit.

UCLA police officer Sgt. Mark Littlestone said the activists were violating the law by targeting the residents home within 100 feet. He said the department had marked with paint where the demonstrators could legally picket and notified the protesters.

“They should have been aware of that distance,” he said. “So it shouldn’t have been a surprise.”

Carol Glasser, one of the activists arrested and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, described May 15 as a “weird day.” She said campus police were following them more vigorously than usual and a LAPD helicopter appeared at one of the locations. When the protesters arrived at their final residence for the day, the UCLA police made their move.

“They didn’t observe us,” said Glasser. “They didn’t come, pull up their cars and watch what was going on. Their lights were going before they even turned the corner.”

Glasser said police were initially unsure why they were detaining the activists.

“I never learned of whatever I was being charged with until I was actually given the ticket after sitting in a holding cell for hours,” she said.

The surveillance tactics of UCLA police were observed by LA Activist at a Jan. 15 picket. As described earlier, a police officer in plain clothes, who would not identify himself, videotaped demonstrators.

Littlestone was also present. He followed the activists’ van that day from Sherman Oaks to a shopping center in Palms near Venice and Robertson Boulevards.

“I wouldn’t call it a ‘surveillance,’” he said. “We are out there to protect the researchers and document the activities that may or may not cause them issues.”

UCLA police officer Sgt. Mark Littlestone tails activists in their van heading from Sherman Oaks back to Palms – a distance of nearly 20 miles. When asked about the police surveillance, activist Nicoal Sheen said: “We’ve been followed far and wide.” Sheen is a co-plaintiff in the lawsuit against UCLA. The photo was digitally modified to obscure Littlestone's license plate. (Dan Bluemel / LA Activist)

Technically, the jurisdiction of the UCLA police is the entire state. The department argues that its operation is an attempt to protect the researchers, but Liberman argues that the department is going beyond its mandate by engaging in aggressive tactics. He says police monitor websites of animal rights groups, know the logistics of their demonstrations and are present at staging areas where activists initially meet.

“They are there when they arrive, they follow them to campus, they follow them all day long,” he said. “Even when they leave the protest area and go to the restroom or have lunch they still follow them. They follow them all the way back to the staging area until they finally disperse. Even when they eat dinner they are still being monitored and videotaped.”

“There is a great deal of intimidation going on here and, as far as I’m concerned, … [it's] way beyond their scope of authority under any statute I’ve seen,” he added.

The department’s heavy-handed spying may not be without merit. According to the Los Angeles Times, since June 2006, there have been seven violent incidents targeting UCLA researchers. Some acts involved vandalism, including incendiary devices.

Although there have been reported death threats made against the researchers, the Times reported no one was hurt in the attacks. The last reported incident was in March 2009.

Activists interviewed by LA Activist make a clear distinction between themselves and those who turn to vandalism or death threats to make their point. Furthermore, they argue that activists who participate in legal protests expose themselves to police videotaping and media coverage, something anyone engaging in illegal activities would avoid.

According to Ferdin, the two factions don’t associate.

“There is a ‘fire wall’ between the above-ground, legal picketers and the ‘underground,’” she said in an e-mail to LA Activist. “There has to be for everyone’s safety. Picketers don’t know and don’t even want to know who the people are doing illegal actions.”

Littlestone said that is not the case. Besides the arrests made in May 2010, two activists associated with the anti-vivisection campaign, Kevin Olliff and Linda Greene, were convicted last year of stalking and conspiracy charges. He said it is in the best interest for the university and the researchers to have some police presence at the pickets.

According to Voice of the Voiceless, an Animal Liberation Movement website, Olliff “was convicted merely of participating in home demonstrations.”

“Most of the news on Kevin Olliff was dominated by exaggerated and inaccurate news reports, claiming Kevin was a ‘member of the Animal Liberation Front,’” reported the website. “In fact, at no point were any such allegations made by the prosecution.”

Littlestone admits that he has no distinction between above-ground or underground activists and focuses on those most visible during his investigation into threats and vandalism.

“If they are out there doing what they need to do and they’re legal, we don’t have a problem,” he said. “It’s when that crosses the line or threats are made or there is a concern for public safety or we are trying to figure out who’s planning to use incendiary devices, that is what we are trying to investigate.”

Behind the lawsuit is the concern activists have over the effect the surveillance and arrests are having on their dissent and First Amendment rights. Though the core group of demonstrators may be undaunted, they are afraid of some people being intimidated by police tactics and backing out of demonstrations for fear of being arrested.

“It makes me pissed off that they are getting away with this,” said Ferdin. “To others, mostly older and newer activists, it makes them feel anxious, harassed, stalked and uncomfortable. There have been some brand new activists who find it so uncomfortable, they will no longer come out to pickets, which is exactly what UCLA wants by this strategy of getting into people’s faces with their cameras, stalking us to the bathroom, dinner, et cetera. It’s an outrage.”

In the meantime, the pickets and surveillance continues.

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19 Responses to ‘To protect and to unnerve’: animal rights activists accuse UCLA of intimidation tactics

  1. John on February 4, 2011 at 7:36 am

    What Ferdin doesn’t mention is that her husband, Jerry Vlasak, is a spokesperson for the North American Animal Liberation Front Press Office, the mouthpiece for those extremists (the ALF doesn’t have “members” per se) who have carried out firebomb attacks on the homes of scientists at UCLA and elsewhere in California. In one recent incident the family of UCSC scientist David Feldheim had to escape from the upstairs of their house via a fire escape when it was set on fire while they were asleep inside. Vlasak and his associates have frequently defended the use of violence against scientists who use animals in medical research, with Vlasak even justifying their murder on at least one occasion.

    The “above-ground” harassment of the family and neighbours of scientists by Pam Ferdin and her fellow animal rights extremists through home demonstrations is just a very thinly veiled form of intimidation. These demonstrations have nothing to do with free speech and everything to do with coercion. They echo very closely the tactics of anti-abortion extremists, right down to the use of “wanted” posters and references to George Tiller in threats.

    UCLA police are right to keep a very, very close eye on Pam Ferdin and her ALF chums.

  2. jmr on February 4, 2011 at 10:57 am

    Pot kettle black

  3. Jane on February 4, 2011 at 11:12 am

    Nice article. Incredibly one sided and delusional. After numerous violent attacks on researchers, the police notice and attempt to keep LAW ABIDING citizens safe. And that makes the poor little protesters feel uncomfortable? What about the person doing their job and trying to further science and raise their family while under constant protest outside their doors and risk of violence? I guess they must deserve it and not have rights of their own? Isn’t the constant protesting of the same houses the same thing? You followed these people home and bother them in their off time. So why can’t the same thing be done to the protesters?

  4. MO on February 4, 2011 at 11:47 am

    LOL. Oh the irony. The AR activists are suing because they are being intimidated and having their pictures taken? Worried about being harassed, stalked, having their addresses, license plates, and names recorded? That is the same tactics they are using, except the police don’t firebomb their cars.

  5. koi on February 4, 2011 at 12:08 pm

    That’s an ironic take. The whole point of picketing is to harass researchers and put a pressure on their families. It is as unethical a tactic as they get. And then these people cry wolf when THEY are being filmed. If this is not hypocrisy i don’t know what is.

    Demonstrations in front of people’s homes and stalking should be illegal.

  6. Mark on February 5, 2011 at 6:58 am

    Agreed. Not surprising this story comes from a source entitled “The L.A. Activist.” Is this the FOX News for activists?

  7. a plaintiff on February 15, 2011 at 12:35 pm

    You say this is one sided, but it is the first article I have seen in which any activist was ever interviewed. Both sides were interviewed here. I am one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit and this is the ONLY time anyone who has written about the lawsuit has ever actually asked any plaintiff or lawyer in the case for an interview.

  8. Lisa on February 15, 2011 at 1:30 pm

    It blows my mind that the people commenting on this article are deluded enough to believe that groups affiliated with those who commit illegal actions would also be stupid enough to show their faces publicly, on a regular basis, with police and media presence, in front of these researchers homes. That’s not what is happening here. These protesters are nonviolent, and legally exercising their First Amendment rights.

    Considering the constant surveillance protest groups endure, don’t you think they would have caught them doing something violent or illegal by now? Of course it is understandable that police should be present during these protests, for the safety of everyone involved. But they have taken it way too far. Our tax dollars should not be spent to stalk and harass activists, whether you agree with their cause or not.

  9. Denis on February 15, 2011 at 1:31 pm

    The previous commenters apparently would prefer to live in a police state without a Bill of Rights. Sorry folks, but these are legal protests. Home demonstrations are used by all kinds of groups, including police departments in New York and parole officers here in California. Anti-abortion proponents have actually killed people… would you say anti-abortion protestors should not be allowed to picket at clinics? Your comments indicate that you think the pursuit of profit through vivisection is more important that our citizens basic rights under the Constitution. There seems to be a direct connection between people who are in favor of killing, imprisoning, and maiming innocent non-human animals for monetary gain and those who would squelch the voices of humans who disagree with them.

  10. MR on February 15, 2011 at 1:37 pm

    History has shown that the UC Regents will only do the right thing when forced by litigation. Back in the 1990s they had to be sued to give back benefits to all of the part-time workers UC hired at 49% time (in an attemted to avoid giving these workers benefits including pension investiture). They lost that lawsuit and they will lose this one, too.

    The claim that animal rights activits are “violent” is laughable given the fact that no one has been harmed in any of the protests. Of course, while protests continue, primates are being harmed every day. History will be on the side of those brave enough to stand up for the animals.

  11. aldarase on February 15, 2011 at 1:38 pm

    this is david vs goliath, and surely UCLA doesn’t think the ALF is the big guy. should non-violent picketing in public be banned? no, this is covered under the bill of rights. needless cruetly to animals aka vivisection should be illegal. god bless those fighting for the rights of these non-human animal victims. remember AETA and be careful, the big dogs are itching to get you.

  12. Human on February 15, 2011 at 2:30 pm

    Those darn animal rights activists. How dare they picket peacefully in hopes of alleviating pain and agony endured by any other species but our own!

  13. Lee on February 15, 2011 at 2:32 pm

    Great article. You put both viewpoints across very well, only someone with an agenda (on either side) could say differently. I don’t have any stake in this either way however many of the commenters from the pro-animal research camp miss the point so badly that I have to wonder if they are trying to be deliberately deceptive. What the protesters are doing constitutes first amendment speech, there is no role for the police to investigate this. You may not like what they do but it is legal and therefore not relevant to the police.

    If ALF activists are doing things that are against the law then the police can investigate that. Although with all the resources the police are wasting following these lawful protesters, I don’t see why more of our budget should be shelled out catching a few ALF types as well!

  14. Susan on February 15, 2011 at 3:57 pm

    Wow, are we really still debating whether the LAPD crosses the line in its “tactics?” Where do you people live?

    This form of protest is legal. You might not like it, but that’s neither here nor there. Call your congressman and complain.

    For what it’s worth I have never heard the 100 foot law interpreted as loosely as the activists’ lawyer. The PD had every reason to arrest them if they crossed the 100-foot boundary. However they are not entitled to engage in a systematic campaign of harassment against the activists – if that is what happened, which is what the lawsuit is ostensibly about.

    Instead of belittling the people who are suing, activists in other movements should be taking pains to learn from this as a “case study” – as the saying goes, “First they came for the communists,
    and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist…”

  15. Nicoal on February 15, 2011 at 6:55 pm

    The mindless comments above come from a society that is content with torture and murder of other sentient beings. I am curious to hear the reactions from the same people commenting on this article if it was human babies being strapped into restraining devices and injected with PCP. Would you still feel it is unnecessary or “extremist” to speak up? Are monkeys not as innocent as human babies?

    In fact, London, Jentsch and other vivisectors are directly responsible for the deaths of not only innocent non-human animals but innocent HUMANS as well (For examples of the “great” advances vivisection has given us, please see “50 Deadly Consequences of Animal Experimentation). Their horrific experiments hold us back from finding a real, applicable cure to schizophrenia and addiction.

    If I as a human react differently to a particular drug than say my sister does (also a human), then how is it possible to extract “scientific” information from a drug test on a completely different species ? If one is to argue that primates are have similar DNA to humans, then why is it we cannot just test on humans, since we could at least guarantee the subject is the same species thus producing more accurate results???

    I am sure many of you who commented would state that it is abhorrent to test on non-consenting humans, but my question is why is an non-human animal any different (if you do believe it is horrid to test on unwilling humans)? Is it a matter of speciesism and/or the idea that one is “inferior” to another? If that is the case, then I am sure the experiments that Hitler and the SS conducted on Jewish people (since they were regarded as “inferior” by Nazis) are acceptable as well? If your reasoning is based on non-human animals “inferiority”, we should condone slavery, racism, human trafficking, child prostitution, etc. (?) because those societal problems function off the same idea that another is below one’s moral consideration, as well.

    And, surely, if I wanted to be certain I was an actual terrorist, I would work inside a lab at UCLA.

  16. carole rapahelle davis on February 15, 2011 at 8:01 pm

    All activists, whatever the cause, are viewed as troublemakers or criminals when they are fewer than 100 at a demonstration. Everyone thinks that Egyptian activists are wonderful for overthrowing a crook, an oppressor. Had they been merely a few dozen activists brave enough to make their opinions known, they would have been tortured in prison. When thousands march for justice, suddenly they gain respect and their cause is perceived as mainstream and worthy.

    I have protested for the rights of animals with 7 activists and I have protested with 300. The difference in the perception of the public is astounding. Same issue, same words, yet the larger the group, the less likely we are to be bullied and the more likely we are to be respected for the belief that it is wrong to inflict violence on animals.

    A small group of activists will be pelted with insults, will be arrested, beaten, hosed down, tear-gassed. When you are 300, the police stand down, uphold your rights and try to get in the picture on CNN. The passers-by give you the thumbs up, they honk their car horns with approval and think you are wonderful for doing what is right.

    The animal rights movement is growing. We are millions strong. The factory farms, slaughterhouses, the laboratories, the fur farms, the circuses, zoos, marine parks, the puppy mills…all of the cruelty is on Youtube. The public is learning what goes on behind closed doors now and the proof is that lawmakers are paying attention to public outcry.

    Soon, the maltreatment of animals and animal rights activists will be viewed in the context of the history of an important social justice movement. Animal protection laws will be strengthened and those who profit from the torture of animals will be stripped of all respectability.
    Carole Davis, Companion Animal Protection Society

  17. concerned citizen on February 16, 2011 at 2:50 pm

    To those of you who think that these protestors should be arrested for lawfully picketing in the neighborhoods I think that its time for you to take a walk down memory lane. I’m sure that you have all herd of that little thing called “The Bill Of Rights”. We all read about it in our high school text books but since some of you seem to have forgotten what you learned so many years ago I think that it is time for you to take a second look.

    First Amendment:
    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

    YES! Thats right folks.It is LEGAL in this country to express your opinions openly no matter how unpopular they may be. It does not matter whether you agree with the protestors cause or not. They DO have a right be there.

  18. Trading Eld on June 19, 2011 at 9:19 pm

    I like what you guys tend to be up too. This type of clever work and exposure! Keep up the good works guys I’ve incorporated you guys to blogroll.

  19. Jason on August 3, 2011 at 5:45 pm

    There are MANY alternatives to using animals in research. As a university, one would hope that UCLA might explore these more accurate and humane methods. There is no justification for continuing to experiment on, and kill, these sentient beings. What happens to these animals matters to them, whether or not it matters to anyone else. Have some empathy and put yourselves in their shoes for a minute.

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