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Dear Friends,

If I were to scream right now, there would be an echo that would resonate within the confines of my 9’X5’ cell. Unlike the prisons depicted on television, there are no steel barred gates or tin cups for me to sweep and clang against the bars while I sing Kumbaya in some sort of throw-back romantic fashion. Instead, it’s clean, virtually soundproof and the door is solid, sterile. There are disciplines here that I tow the line with; things like how between 7 a.m. and 4 p.m., no more than two photographs can be atop one’s locker within your cell. I’m not sure why this is, but I obey anyway because I need to pick my battles. I’m thankful for the two photographs; they’re my escape from the white walls, grey floor and window that overlooks concrete walls and coils of razor wire. Past the concrete and wire I see treetops swaying, birds flying and shades of color depicted nowhere else within here except in my two photographs. If I were to scream right now, there would be an echo inside my white walled room, but the heavy door and thick walls would remain the same, the razor wire would be right where it was and the tree-tops far off would remain in their dance.

I see such freedoms past these gates. I see it in the birds. I see it in the moving air pushing the treetops. I smell it while I’m out on the yard. I feel like a little kid all over again when some birds will gather near me on the yard; so little, but their hearts are so big, they beat so fast and hence they’re constantly eating. They sing and fly and dance amidst the razor wire. When I see them I see freedom. Freedom is not defined by where you are, nor is freedom restricted by walls or limitations on personal effects within one’s cell. Freedom is a mindset. Freedom is defined by how you live and how you see. As I write this, there is a Chicano man doing push-ups, thinking about the children he loves, who he will see again one day. He may be locked up, but no one can shackle his heart. No one can cage his soul. With each push-up he is home, tucking in his children, kissing them goodnight and a few cells down from mine, my man Slim is singing off key, smiling, dancing alone. Who could ever take that from him?

Outside the birds eat. They pass food off to their young. They sing sweet songs and frolic amidst the coils of razor wire. It’s in their nature to be free and inasmuch it is in our nature to be free. Now I’ve studied Biology, and I know how children are made, and I am not such an egotist to think that I was made differently. I am much the same.

You see…
Little tiny birds flew into my mother’s womb and into the delivery room, I burst and I bloom. I was born with a fire inside of m; one that cannot be put out until the day I die.
They have not killed me…
I’m not dead…
I don’t even have the wind knocked out of me.

I once saw a button that read, “Words mean nothing—actions mean everything.” I remember liking what I saw. It felt raw and straight forward. But my case that has landed me in this cell, United States v. Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty, has made me take another look at that phrase. The government contends that our words, printed or spoken, were so potent that we must be jailed. It makes you want to re-think the first half of the phrase reading, “Words mean nothing.” I could only guess that the government is not so much concerned with words as they are of the hearts and minds that govern the lungs that expel wind, that control the vocal chords, or steer this pen across this pad in my cell right now. You see, we, you and I, hate oppression, because we love freedom, and freedom scares the shit out of our captors. The people that hold you and me within a 9 to 5 work week, the captors that keep you doing something you hate, and at the same time, keep us away from our families, our children, in a cubicle or a jail cell. I write from a medium/high security institution within our capitalist system, and you listen within the comforts of our minimum security wing. When we yell, unfocused outcries against oppression, our captors understand us. Better yet, they expect it. When we start talking about freedom, they get scared. Freedom is a word that has become so lost amidst our culture that the mere mention of it invokes emotions. One only need look out their window and see billboards using the female body to sell products, commodifying womyn and using their figure as a marketing tool, or to see a “For Sale” sign on a piece of land, assigning it a dollar amount and proclaiming how to procure it. One need only go as far as a local market to see refrigerators filled with Styrofoam trays and cellophane packages of meat for $2.99. Nowhere is there mention of the words “cow” or “hen,” but rather we see words like “Brisket” or “Tender.”

Being that they think words can be so scary, let’s look at the roots of the word “Capitalism.” Capitalism is derived from the Latin word “Capita,” meaning “head.” Today, capitalism literally places a dollar value on the head of every living thing, and if it’s a headless form, let’s say a tree, then its trunk or its roots or leaves are assigned a dollar value. If it’s a non-living thing like a coal mine or a boom box, they too get assigned a dollar value. In many ways, our capitalist system wants to race for the future and never look back, using everything as a means for profit, or as a medium in which to promote profit. Labeling everything and the kitchen sink as a component in the hustle, and as this race has reached a frenzied pace, we have forgotten that beautiful living creatures were what we call burgers, or that womyn are beautiful as they are; they don’t have to look like the ones on the billboards, and they don’t exist as commodities or as marketing tools, or articles for conquest; they are womyn. And as simply put as saying womyn are womyn, and not commodities, land is land and not property, no one owned this land before our culture, how could they now?

A forest is a forest, not a stand or cut; an estuary is an estuary and not a fishery; a womyn in a swimsuit does not exist to sell beer from a billboard, her name is Monica and she wants to study botany; a mountain top is a mountain top and not a claim, and a monkey being mutilated on a necropsy table inside Huntingdon Life Sciences is not a subject in a Colgate-Palmolive test, his name was James. An undercover investigator named him James. He was so social, he loved to play with the investigator’s hair, much as he would if he were free to be with his brethren and groom them. I came to jail for James, and I will never regret that. James would have been assigned a number by the technicians at HLS had it not been for the activist posing as worker at the lab. HLS had and still has a policy of assigning animals subject numbers because they feel that names develop an affinity for the animals and impedes worker productivity.

We have drifted so far away from life and freedom in our culture that those who defend it and shout out its definition stand to lose what little of it they have left. If we stop and look outward toward nature, and inward toward ourselves, you’ll see something, you’ll hear something; a dissatisfaction with every aspect of our culture as not meeting the needs of one’s soul. Dollars or cars or clothes can never take the place of first kisses, or dreams of flying, or sunsets. So our voids grow bigger and bigger, and in turn our culture grows sicker and more polarized. “Ecoterrorism,” as my captors call it, is not a sickness. It’s a symptom of a sick culture; it’s reactionary. It’s a reflex to push freedom out of the way of an oncoming truck, climbing on board, sabotaging what makes that truck go, or flattening its tires before it even leaves the lot.

Special people don’t do this; common folks do. People like me and you. James needed to be saved from inside HLS, and not a day goes by where I’m not pained by the fact that he was not. I’m sure I am not alone in this pain. You feel the same way too when you turn on the television and see a Lebanese or Iraqi parent pulling their child’s broken body out of rubble, or see the last wild lands in our nation turned out for cutting, or read that one in five black males with spend a third of their lives in jail. You feel the same sense of futility. You want to do something. You wonder if you’re alone in feeling this way, and if you’re not, then where is everyone else on this issue?

And that’s part of the reason why we sing our songs, why we come to shows and community spaces to share our time with people who think like us, eat like us and want change just like us. You see, if I screamed right now, an echo would resonate inside my cell and would go no further, but in these words I now get to be here, today, with you, and I can tell you that I have never felt this free. I love freedom and I love all of you guys, and as long as I am alive, I will continue to have this flame burning in me. They can never take that away from me, and neither from you.

I get a lot of letters from a lot of wonderful people labeling me a hero, but I am no different than she/he who has written, nor are you any different. I did not go into battle with HLS with any more or less tools than any of you have. I’m not more experienced in a field or more heroic, or empathetic. The people who will save this world from war, from ecological collapse, from famine, from a capitalist culture bent on stripping everything and everyone of their inherent worth, to assign them a dollar worth, are you. Those people are you. The next Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Jane Goodall, is right here today. You don’t need to go further than your bathroom mirror to see the future’s hope. You see, you and I were born with fires inside us. They have not killed us, we’re not dead, in fact, we don’t even have the wind knocked out of us.

So it starts today, right this second, as I sit in my cell, we will say this together:

They have not killed me…
I don’t even have the wind knocked out of me…

They have not killed me…
I don’t even have the wind knocked out me…

They have not killed me…
I don’t even have the wind knocked out of me…

They have not killed me...
I don’t even have the wind knocked out of me…

Andrew Stepanian
May 2007