Vegan Outreach: Wrong, but still a Friend


This weekend, activists in 23 cities will stand for a simple but powerful message: It’s not Food. It’s Violence. The campaign’s growth has been a sight to behold, with participation this month as far away as Stuttgart and Copenhagen. But to take on a behemoth as large and as fast-growing as Chipotle (which in a few short years, has grown to become a $16 billion dollar company, the third largest restaurant chain in the United States), we’ll need more. We’ll need to be extraordinarily smart and strategic – exploiting the waves of the news cycle to maximize the impact of our message in both mainstream and social media. We’ll have to be persistent in the face of threats and obstacles, even when posed by those we consider allies. And we’ll need to be brave, to speak honest words in difficult moments, to stand by the truth even in the face of adversity.

But we should remember never to get so lost in the strategy and logistics of campaigning that we forget our movement’s greatest mission. Because the great threat posed by Chipotle is not its exponential growth or its mass consumer fraud. It’s not the slick marketing campaigns or manipulative attempts at co-optation. The great threat posed by Chipotle is that it will steal our movement’s drive, its determination, its soul.

And at its very root, our movement’s soul is a deep kindness for those less fortunate than us.

I'm reminded of words that I wrote many years ago, to the mailing list of a small but growing non-profit. 

So I witnessed a death two days ago. I am trying my best to get that image out of my mind, but I'm going to write about it here, in the hopes that writing will be a catharsis. 
 
An hour or so before I was planning to head out to leaflet, a friend of mine, Dan, who I hadn't seen in many months, called me up and said that he had spotted a stalled transport truck.... with a downed dairy cow inside. He had a camera and was taking pictures, but a large tow truck had arrived, and he was afraid that they might move to another location to "deal" with the problem. I drove out to meet him. 
 
I arrived to witness a grisly scene. A poor girl was collapsed on the ground inside the truck (which had large holes that we could see through), in a 3-inch-deep cesspool of feces and urine. You could see her wide, terrified eyes staring into nothingness, and her entire body quivering ever so slightly. But she was making no sounds. The other cows had trampled all over her broken body; she had bloody wounds and lesions that were clearly visible, in bright red, through the filth. Her udder was swollen to many times its normal size. We noticed a ghastly sliver of flesh on a gate mechanism above her. (It was later suggested to us that this might have been her tongue. Cows tend to lick the sides of the truck, in search of moisture, but when it's a frozen mechanized gate that you are licking, that can lead to tragic consequences...)
 
As we stood witnessing this terrifying scene, the truck driver sat in his car, on the phone, no doubt cursing his misfortune, to have two broken "machines" (the truck, and the cow) on the same trip. The other cows had already been removed to another truck, which left our poor friend, perhaps fortunately, alone in her quiet torment....
 
We all know, in the abstract, about the billions of individuals suffering and dying all around us. We all have seen footage and images from the concentration camps we euphemistically describe as "farms." But nothing is quite so impactful as seeing an innocent die before your eyes. I've witnessed the tortuous death of an innocent victim a few times before, and that is a few times too many. 
 
It simply HAS to stop.
 
My friends, this is the enemy. The fear, the pain, the utter desolation... our non-human brethren have done nothing to deserve such a terrible fate. And yet that fate is cruelly forced upon them, over and over and over again... an endless procession of torment and death, a procession that sometimes may seem invincible to change or progress. 
 
But whenever i lose hope for this movement, whenever I am feeling overwhelmed by the weight of the oppression all around us, I just look around me a bit more carefully. And when I look a bit more carefully, I see something different and even beautiful. I see the inspired stream of emails coming in from the VO list; I see a few dozen people standing on a frozen chicago street, calling forcefully for animal liberation;  I see a passerby's pained expression of empathy when she stops briefly to look at a sign. And when I see these things, I see that our enemy CAN be defeated, that the Holocaust raging all around us CAN be stopped, and that our vision of a just and peaceful world for all animals CAN become a reality. 
 
Our poor friend died that day, on the filthy floor of a bloody transportation truck. We witnessed her body go cold, and her eyes stop moving. Her entire life had been enslaved and twisted by violence and prejudice. But I think that, despite her cruel death, she had moments of peace and joy. The sweet smell of a new and unexpected food, the gentle touch of a rare worker who had not been desensitized to pervasive industrial cruelty, or the fresh taste of cool water on a hot summer day. Of course, much of her life was torment. That cannot be denied. But because of people like you, and because of brave activists all over the world, from chicago to amsterdam to moscow, her torment will not be forgotten. And some day soon, those few moments of peace and joy, that our poor friend experienced ever so fleetingly, will no longer be just moments... 
 
All of these thoughts were sifting through my mind a couple days ago, as I headed out to leaflet, a couple hours later than I had expected. My mood was somber. I could still visualize, and indeed feel, the terror in my poor friend's eyes, as she wallowed, slowly dying, in torment and filth. And when I arrived, I looked around: I was alone on a cold Chicago street. 
 
But I didn't feel alone. Becuase I thought of the hundreds of activists on this very list, the thousands who have come to fur free friday in chicago, and the MILLIONS all over the world who have spoken and stood for the rights of oppressed classes, in a centuries-long struggle for equality, justice, and freedom. 
 
All of you inspire me. All of you give me strength. All of you give me hope. And for all of our superficial disagreements and differences, for all of our human pettiness and peccadilloes, the common vision and passion we share, of a just and peaceful world for ALL of us on this planet, makes me glad and proud to call each and every one of you a friend, a friend in the fight for liberation. 
 
As to the leafleting itself? The traffic was low at Robert Morris College. I don't remember any interactions of note, perhaps because I wasn't my usual town-crier self. But at a moment when I should have been drowning in despair over the suffering i had witnessed, isolated on a cold street, facing an oblivious or outright hostile public, I did not feel despair.
 
I felt hope and kinship. And I have all of you to thank for that. 
 
There will come a day when the animals are all free. I don't know if it will happen sooner or later, but I have no doubt that it will come. And when that day comes, the world will look back on our times, gratefully, for the brave work that you do, for your passion to stand for those who cannot stand for themselves, and most of all, for your hope... your hope in a movement where it was so easy to wallow in despair. 
 
But this email has now gotten much longer than I had anticipated. So let me conclude with a quote by an activist much braver and better than myself: 
 
"I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long...because THE ARC OF THE MORAL UNIVERSE IS LONG, BUT IT BENDS TOWARD JUSTICE." 
 
If you are ever in despair or frustration, remember those words. Dr. King was right about his movement, and he will be right, too, about ours.

The irony? The group that inspired such hope for me so many years ago was... Vegan Outreach. Yes, the same Vegan Outreach that condemns the Chipotle campaign today

I've evolved far from the vision of social change that I held in those years. But, still, those words come back to mind: 

All of you inspire me. All of you give me strength. All of you give me hope. And for all of our superficial disagreements and differences, for all of our human pettiness and peccadilloes, the common vision and passion we share, of a just and peaceful world for ALL of us on this planet, makes me glad and proud to call each and every one of you a friend, a friend in the fight for liberation. 

A terrible image from a "cage free" farm. The cages of wire have been replaced by cages of flesh. 

A terrible image from a "cage free" farm. The cages of wire have been replaced by cages of flesh. 

And the words still ring true. Notwithstanding my shift in views, there are people at Vegan Outreach -- good, smart, and even inspirational people -- who I still admire immensely today. And on our day of action, tomorrow, let's not go forth with grievance against our allies in our hearts, or enmity towards those in our movement who "just aren't quite there, yet." Let's go forth with inspiration, and strength, and hope -- and see the swelling movement, with all its diverse perspectives, as a source of hope. 

Because, when it comes to the most important things -- our determination to save our poor friends suffering so terribly under human tyranny --  we are all friends. Friends in the fight for liberation. 

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