Jonathan Pieslak, Phd and Professor of Music interviews Walter Bond about Vegan Straight Edge, Hardline, the ALF and the Music and politics behind the movement!
Jonathan Pieslak-I’m Curious as how you first became interested in radical environmentalism and Animal Liberation. Could you describe what attracted you to the movement and how you became involved? Also, could you describe your musical background? How would you describe the role of music in your life before and during your time as an activist?
Walter Bond-I first became interested in Animal Liberation and Veganism when I was 19 years old starting in the summer of 1995 I began working for a company in the Midwest by the name of ‘Dakota Mechanical’ I worked on the construction of two slaughterhouses, one in Perry Iowa and one in Logansport Indiana. Both were IBP pork production facilities. The horrors I witnessed there had a profound effect on me. If you would like, I wrote two articles about my experiences working there. They are entitled ‘Why I Am Vegan’ and ‘Slaughterhouse Blues’. You can read them both and many of my other writings at www.supportwalter.org, they are also in my book ‘Always Looking Forward’ Along with a few articles about the importance of the Straight Edge music scene and my connection to it. There is also a song and video about my first prison sentence in 1997 of arson for burning down a drug kingpins meth operation. The song is ‘to Ashes’ by the band ‘Earth Crisis’.
As far as the role of music in my life before activism. Well, I was born in Clear Lake, Iowa. This is where the first major disaster happened in rock ‘n’ roll history. My home town is where Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper died in a plane crash. I was born into a musical family. My father began playing rockabilly (that’s what they call it these days) back in the 1950’s, he has been a life long musician. When I was a child of 5 years old my father played in a band named ‘Southern Comfort’. They opened up for Eric Clapton and Joe Cocker. They were on the verge of stardom in the early 80’s but alcohol and egos ruined those prospects.
My father plays lead and rhythm guitar, piano and saxophone. In my household it wasn’t about what sport I would play but what instrument. I chose drums. I have been a drummer since age 7. By age 8 I was sitting in with my dads band and playing cover tunes like ‘Johnny Be Good’ . My father still has video of me playing and I was so small all you see is the top of my head and drumsticks! Still, I was able to hold a good back beat even at that age.
As an activist music played, and still plays a vital roll. I am Straight Edge which is a subculture that began in the punk rock scene of the east coast in the early 80’s and quickly became a genre of it’s own. Shortly after I left the slaughterhouse industry and got into Animal Rights activism I stumbled across the album ‘Destroy The Machines’ By the Vegan Straight Edge band Earth Crisis. To this day I think has the most amazing Animal and Earth Liberation lyrics I have ever heard before or since! Shortly thereafter I became involved in a lifestyle that was called Hardline which spawned Vegan bands like Raid, Vegan Reich, and many others.
I was always attracted to how the Vegan Straight Edge message preached abstinence and compassion from an aggressive and absolutist point of view. It was the first time that doing what’s compassionate and right was presented to me in a way that appeared, well……. Dangerous.
After viewing slaughterhouse production first hand I was not interested in ultra pacifist hippie ways of answering the horrors I had witnessed. I became Vegan out of disgust for what Animals suffer, not out of sensitivity, per se. So Vegan Straight Edge and simultaneously Hardline were very appealing because these were the only subcultures within Animal Rights that I found were approaching the issues morally and ferociously. which is what I believed, and still believe is necessary to combat the profound wickedness of Animal use and abuse
JP-How did Vegan Straight Edge start? It seems like the group ‘Youth Of Today’ was really important in infusing Straight Edge with the Vegan ideal. But then, didn’t the Vegan Ideal split between those who saw it only as a matter of individual lifestyle and those who were more Hardline about it?
WB- While bands like Youth Of Today and Gorilla Biscuits were singing about vegetarianism in the some of their music the origins of Vegan Straight Edge are debatable. For me it began with the band Vegan Reich because although there were others talking about Animal Rights issues they were the first group of activists to come into the scene with a thought out and purposeful Vegan Ideology and also a more metal sound. Which later became definitive of the Vegan Straight Edge genre. In answer to the second part of your question: yes there always was a rift between posi-edge and the more hardcore. I think it just amounts to a lot of posturing by both sides. If you want to uplift the scene or approach activism as a shiny happy person, good for you! There is not enough positivity in the world and way to many rascals. On the other hand if you want to kick ass for the Animals and against the insanity of inebriation, well, that’s needed too. I found that once you enter into grassroots activism no matter what the cause, you begin looking at things more tactically instead of topically. In these music driven scenes image is more important than substance much of the time. these two worlds, activism and show biz often have very little in common. Which is why despite all the professions of ‘true till’ death’ it doesn’t pan out that way for most of the kids that profess it.
JP-I’ve been to a handful of hardcore shows in New York City and elsewhere, but I’m curious what is the scene like for those that identify with it?
WB- The Straight Edge Scene varies so much according to time and place that there is really no way to describe it as one entity. For instance there are places in europe and South America where Veganism is Integral to Straight Edge. Where as much of the American scene is far less vocal about Animal issue than it once was. It seems in the American Straight Edge scene there is two major factions playing out in dogmatic politics. On one side you have a very rhetorical anarchist contingent that frames Straight Edge according to issues important to libertarian socialism. On the other side of Straight Edge you have a very right wing and often Christian influence like all the ‘Facedown Records’ bands. In between these two sides is a bunch of very ambiguous bands that basically sound the same and anthemize their lyrics so that they don’t appear preachy and they can have much more personal success by having a lager appeal.
The scene I grew up in was in Colorado and Iowa in the late 80’s, to late 90’s. Straight Edge was really going through a revival. The sound of the music was changing, the production value was improved and the message was incredibly outspoken. Whether a band was into Veganism, Hare Krishna, politics or Hardline there was no ambiguity to it. We had all the same political rifts too, but it was not so solidified. Straight Edge was by far the primary issue and not ‘why’ you were Straight Edge.
But just as it is now many of those that professed these hardcore beliefs, supposedly for life, ended up drifting away never to be heard from again. Back then in my youth I remember becoming very upset about this. But as I grew it just became a given. Looking back I can see why this happens much more clearly. Straight Edge has a lot of camaraderie that goes along with it. Friendship as well as some social tribalism and for most this is the allure. The message is just a rallying point for these people and you can find camaraderie and rally around a lot of different things as you grow in life, if that’s what you need emotionally. For a smaller group of people Straight Edge had a deep effect and then became a stepping stone for activism or musical careers in their adult lives.
Straight Edge for me was never about camaraderie. At the time that I got into Straight Edge I was part of a huge social circle in the Denver punk scene. I got involved in Straight Edge because I was raised in a household of drug and alcohol abuse. I began going down that same road and and thought to myself ‘great, I’m going to turn into my parents’. The worst thing a defiant teen could imagine. so Straight Edge for me was a way to hold on to my defiance and change my life for the better.
Straight Edge at the shows was hyper masculine. Lots of fights, lots of males shaking their tail feathers trying to attract a mate, while girls lined the walls and stared in awe at unchecked male aggression. At times it was a violent subculture. But it was incomparable to the violence that goes along with the drug scene.
I used to go to shows at this old roller rink in north Denver. it was magical to me. It was dark and lots of dangerous older kids would be there and these musicians were larger than life to me. there was no internet back then so these bands that came through were just like mythological creatures from the east coast to many of us in Denver. I remember going to see the ‘Cro Mags’ and it was almost a religious experience to me, same with ‘Sick Of It All’. Later when I got serious about Veganism, shows were more of a strengthening and affirmation of my beliefs than a personal revelation.
JP- It seems to me that out of the Vegan Straight Edge scene there were bands like Earth Crisis who talked about environmental issues but generally speaking the scene seemed more oriented towards Animal Rights. Is this accurate to your experience?
WB- I think that is accurate. I think it all ties together but the primary push was largely about the Animals.
JP- Regarding Earth Crisis, a recent book on Straight Edge claims they weren’t Hardline, and in one of their interviews they distanced themselves from Hardline, some of their song lyrics are pretty absolutist. where do you stand on the categorization of Earth Crisis?
WB- Earth Crisis is a Vegan Straight Edge and NOT a Hardline band. Vegan Straight Edge has been their constant message to the public for decades. When we speak of ‘Hardline’ we are not talking about absolutist Straight Edge or Veganism per se. Hardline is a fairly holistic and codified worldview and way of life. It’s outlined in what is known as ‘the Hardline Manifesto’ and had quite a few groups and magazines that were particular to the movement. Hardline has very strict views, it’s as militantly pro-life as it is Vegan and is also against all sex outside of that between a man and a woman, specifically for pro creative purposes.
Earth Crisis has always taken a stance against homophobia and never pushed a ‘no sex’ party line but instead ‘no promiscuity’. Also many Hardliners were/are raw Vegan and lean towards religion and spirituality. Earth Crisis gets the Hardline label a lot because most kids these days just use the word as a synonym for ‘hardcore’, not knowing the obscure history of the actual Hardline movement within the scene.
JP- Is it still called ‘Hardline’. If not what is that movement called now?
WB- Hardline is currently defunct as a movement, although individual Hardliners do still exist. In 2009 before my arrest I was attempting a revival but to no avail.
JP- Did you ever come into contact with racist skinheads?
WB- Yes, many times. Racist skinheads plagued the scene in many cities in the late 80’s to early 90’s. Being as organized racists and nazi skinheads are a bunch of unimaginative knuckleheads they would always seek to take over our scene because they were far to stupid to create their own music scene in any functional way. this led to a lot of battles between nazi skins and everyone else in the Denver scene. Punks, SHARP’s (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice) and Straight Edge kids stood united against the racists, we had to, they outnumbered us and were older and meaner, so we had to fight united.
JP-In terms of Eco-Animal Rights militancy, is Vegan Straight Edge one of the primary genres articulating and supporting ALF/ELF tactics?
WB- As far as genres go, yes, absolutely. While there are many other bands from many other genres that support Animal Liberation and the ALF, Vegan Straight Edge is the only one I know of that these issues specifically are definitive of the genre itself and not the music. There is Vegan Straight Edge hip hop now, as well as punk and metal. Straight Edge and Vegan Straight Edge is by message as much as by music.
JP- In one of your articles you spoke about how a person you were speaking with at a show said something like “your to message based”. Do you think people are initially attracted to Vegan Straight Edge by it’s message or the impact of the music?
WB- I think it’s both, but the message has definitely taken a back seat these days. This is reflected in the lyrics of the bands. Most of today’s Straight Edge bands if you read their lyric sheets at best they will say they don’t like drugs or they might scream ‘STRAIGHT EDGE’! in a song. But so few bands these days really explain why or how drugs are detrimental to society or get specific about much of anything. Here’s an experiment, look at the old lyrics of bands like Youth Of Today, Shelter, 108, Vegan Reich or Raid and compare them to any post 2005 American Straight Edge band. The production value of the music is way better today but has so little to say.
JP- Did music ever play a role in the events leading up to any of your criminal activity?
WB- Honestly no. I can’t say that music ever directly influenced any of my arsons. It has directly influenced parts of my philosophies and worldviews but what motivated my ALF actions and before this my arson of a meth dealer and manufacturer were personal experiences, such as working in slaughterhouses and seeing my family members destroy themselves with addiction.
JP- I noticed that you have two Identical tattoos on either side of your neck in cross wrenches, A symbol typically associated with the Earth First! organization. Did you ever associate with EF!?
WB- The wrenches on my neck are similar to the Earth First! emblem but not quite the same. They use a crossed monkey wrench with a tomahawk. My monkey wrenches are from the Earth Crisis emblem which has become synonymous with Vegan Straight Edge. For me they are a symbol of Vegan Straight Edge resistance. That said, I loved the novel ‘The Monkey wrench Gang’ by Abbey and I think the original Earth First! group was spectacular. Those old activists like Dave Foreman and Howie Wolkie were truly pioneers and super effective activists. Unfortunately, the current version of Earth First! has nothing to do with that original and dynamic group. I have never had any affiliation with Earth First! other than a statement of solidarity I wrote upon their request. I will say that the last time I was imprisoned in Iowa in 97′ I got a hold of Foreman’s book ‘Confessions Of An Eco Warrior’ and it was really inspiring and influential!
JP- When Foreman left and Judi Bari became more interested in establishing a communist/socialist ideological consistency within the group a lot of people left. It seems like you relate much better with the original EF! With it’s multitude of ideological perspectives. Foreman I was told would work with anyone: anarchists, republicans, Vegans, flesh eaters, so long as they were biocentric and direct action oriented.
WB- Your correct, I do relate a lot better with Foreman’s EF! Mainly because it was so much more effective than this new anarcho-EF! There have been a couple of times in my activism that I have put myself in league with anarchism or at least paid lip service to it, being as it is so prevalent in what passes as radicalism and militancy in the Animal Liberation community. I have come to regret this, and I have truly come to understand that Anarchy/anarchism is detrimental, divisive and distracting to the movement. The focus of Animal and Earth Liberation should obviously be on the Animals and Earth. Not ridiculous and schizophrenic political theories or agendas. This is the case with the new EF! and most anarchists in general. It seems that Earth and Animal Liberation are only important to these people as long as it’s caboosed to their primary checklist of political issues. In the process a lot of great people get alienated from the movement.
I have always admired Foreman’s EF! in part because it was so politically syncretic. Much like Vegan Hardline and early Vegan Straight Edge some views were very conservative and others very liberal. I also admire the fact that when EF! began it was really started by a core group of grassroots activists instead of politicos. There was no ulterior motive or agenda of domino issues. Just the defense of the Earth and wild nature.
JP- would you call ALF/ELF a ‘group’? they seem distinct from groups like SHAC and EF! They seem to operate on what I am calling a ‘direct action ideology’ rather than a group that gets together and meet, where they have leadership such as EF! that has a clear hierarchy and leadership no matter what they say to the contrary.
WB- ALF is a set of principles and not a group in any organized way. the principles are to sabotage abusers and those that profit from Animals, rescue Animals from places of harm, be Vegan or vegetarian and never harm a human or Animal in the process. After that the size and scope of various ALF groups varies as much as the individuals that comprise them. The ELF came along about 16 years after the ALF and adopted the same leaderless resistance in defense of the Earth, but were more unabashedly anarchist in their communiques, and often more general in their targeting. Your correct that the ALF/ELF are different than SHAC or EF! In that all ALF actions are illegal and clandestine. You will never find the ALF/ELF protesting in the open or recruiting.
JP- What do you think about the connection between PETA and the ALF?
WB- The general public really seems to think that there is no difference between the two, or that PETA are some hardcore Animal Rights loonies. But PETA is a fairly tame organization compare to the ALF. there was a time in the late 80’s when PETA was more morally supportive of the ALF but those days are history. I think it cost them to many legal problems to be viewed as to close with the ALF.
JP- I was curious about your involvement with a group called ‘Negotiation Is Over’. The SPLC ran a piece on the group which closely affiliates them with you. What is NIO and how does it differ from the ALF? Does NIO break with the ALF credo of not hurting humans?
WB- ‘Negotiation Is Over’ is my friend Camille and her associates. I have been out of contact with her for a couple years as the screeners from homeland security that oversee the counter-terrorism prison unit I am held in have total control over who I can communicate with, and they have banned her from my contacts. Therefore, I really can’t comment on my affiliation with NIO, post 2011. That said, I was at one time Senior Editor of Militant Direct Action for NIO and wrote articles and submitted to interviews in that capacity. NIO and ALF are different in a few ways. First NIO is not a clandestine organization and not involved in any illegality in defense of Animals as is the ALF . NIO when I was writing for them from jail was involved mostly in combating vivisection in aggressive, grassroots and dynamic ways. I suppose that the philosophy of tactics is different between NIO and ALF but this is really a nominal issue, because in reality neither group has ever resorted to physical violence against anyone. For all the sensationalism that NIO has been immersed in, it also, is a far tamer group of individuals than the ALF.
For me personally the philosophy of on non-violence is not a rigorous dogma to be upheld at all times and in all situations. I personally would never use physical violence against people in the name of any cause, because I am not a violent person and this world is suffering from so much violence already I do not want to add to that. But I do not fault anyone for wanting to keep all available tactics up for discussion when the issue is the slaughter of billions of innocent lives and the death of Mother Earth. Thank you so much for all the great questions. Animal Liberation, Whatever It May Take!