A Culture of Oppression and a Moment of Resistance
By Abhijit Muduganti
Before moving to the US a couple of years ago, I had completely underestimated the amount of bigotry I would be encountering during my stay here. As I started getting active for non-humans and other marginalized groups in the country, it became clearer by the day that we are not just festering a culture of ignorance and discrimination, but are actually celebrating it. All of it came together on the 4th of July for the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest in New York, or as I like to call it, “The Ultimate Showdown of Bigotry.”
It all started with the successful disruption of last year’s awards ceremony by members of Collectively Free and Direct Action Everywhere. We knew we had to plan something bigger for Nathan’s 100-year anniversary this year, and we did. After hours of discussion and the organizers’ efforts, we had a plan and enough committed activists to carry it out. Those of us who went to bed got up at 3:30 AM, and we arrived at the location of the contest at 6 o’clock, more than six hours before the men’s contest - which we planned to disrupt - started. I was one of the designated camerapersons for the disruption, and as anybody who’s used to being behind a camera at protests will tell you, one gets to exercise one’s powers of observation while there. The following are some of the things I noticed and was thinking about before, during and after the disruption.
The 4th of July cannot be separated from jingoism, of course – the jingoism that has been used as an excuse to invade nations, enslave humans and destroy entire populations. We could see red, white and blue everywhere as soon as we got to the venue. Flags, banners and curtains – the colors were everywhere. Many of those who came there to watch the event were covered from head to toe in them. Shirts, skirts, pants, handbags, dresses, capes, hats, shoes, socks, flags – it was as stunning as it was cringe-worthy. It was very easy to fit in. As we were waiting outside the barricades for us to be let in, spontaneous chants of “USA! USA!” were intermittently belted out by the crowd, and some of us even started the chants ourselves once in a while. The chants reminded me of the video I watched of last year’s disruption. The crowd used the same chant in response to the activists’ chants of “Are you willing to stop the killing?” The chant began to mean something like “No, we are not. We will continue to kill.” This is not the first time I’ve seen the chant assuming different meanings. I’ve seen it being used as a counter to “Black Lives Matter”; when women were being groped and sexually assaulted in the aftermath of a football game; against Muslims speaking out for their rights during a Trump speech. It has become synonymous with apathy and the silencing of social justice activists.
The chant continued to break out at irregular intervals during the celebratory event. It was blatantly rude and was incredibly sickening. The flags continued to wave. Oppression semingly had never been so glorified.
It could have been a Trump rally. It took me back to the time I was protesting one. The colors, the hats and the signs. There were variations of Trump slogans too – “Make America Poop Again”, “Make Hot Dogs Great Again”, “Make America Eat Again,” etc. The difference was that at the protest I was trying hard not to fit in, but here I had to. There was something in the air that made me feel very uncomfortable as a brown person; I simply didn’t belong there.
The story of the competition’s origin is very disturbing. It supposedly started in 1916 when four immigrants held a hot dog eating contest to see who was more patriotic. The very idea that immigrants need to prove their “patriotism” is revolting. If this doesn’t disgust you enough, you should have seen the celebratory way in which the story was told by George Shea, the guy who supposedly runs the show and is kind of a huge deal for some reason, and the cheers that followed. You should have seen him bring out three preserved teeth of the first winner of the competition, Jim Mullin. Mullin apparently had a thing for Samba, and dancing Brazilian women were paraded around in honour of his memory. I knew something was being celebrated but had no idea why. It was blatantly farcical and ridiculous.
The toxic masculinity was palpable. It was ubiquitous. There was chest thumping and fist bumping everywhere. Although this atmosphere by itself can be quite alienating to anyone who isn’t a heterosexual male that gives importance to his masculinity, there were other blatant displays of sexism too. Male eaters were collectively praised instead of the female eaters before the women’s competition started, which made absolutely no sense since they were praised again before the men’s competition. The ‘bun girls’ were basically cheerleaders in skimpily dressed outfits who put on a dance for the crowd while the ‘bun boys’ were muscular men who went around the stage squirting water at and throwing random gifts into the crowd. Behind me, a guy in a tank top thought it was a good idea to spit orange juice all over the women in front of them. Nothing about any of it was pretty.
Speciesism was what we were there to disrupt, and it was not easy to ignore. It was literally a celebration of the consumption of animal bodies. It was very difficult to understand the reasoning behind the mindless gluttony and complete disregard for sentient life, but I guess it made as much sense as anything else there.
Near the back of the arena, a couple of spectators were holding up signs in support of Harambe the gorilla. They read “Hot Dogs for Harambe” and “Independence for Harambe”. I had no clue if they were being serious. Didn’t matter. They made no sense either way. Three aerial banners with advertisements for Burger King Grilled Dogs were circling the arena. People were wearing hot dog hats and costumes.
It was very different from what we were experiencing a few hours ago. When you are surrounded by your DxE family and are in DxE spaces where anti-speciesism is normalized, you sometimes forget how cruel the outside world is to non-human animals. Nathan’s was quite a reminder.
A Moment of Resistance:
We divided into two groups before entering the arena. The groups took their positions at either side of the front of the stage, mine to the right and the other group to the left. Those who were supposed to get onto the stage were wearing red to look like Nathan’s employees. I didn’t know if any of our planning and attention to detail was going to help. I don’t think anyone else did either. We had to wait there for more than six hours. We were hungry, thirsty and sleep deprived. At least I was. Nobody complained.
We were in communication with the other group throughout the ceremony. People kept coming up with new ideas as to what to do. I knew we weren’t going to decide upon an exact plan until the last minute and I was right. The men’s competition started at last. I took my position behind my fellow activists so as to get a better view of the stage. I saw Chris and Rachel whispering something to each other. I was nervous as hell for them, seemingly more so than they themselves were.
It all happened so suddenly. Chris helped Rachel up on the stage. She rushed across to the contestants table in no time and started pouring the fake blood she was holding in a water pouch on the hot dogs. I saw one of the contestants, “Crazi Legs Conti” grab at her and assault her. I saw Amanda climb onto the stage. That’s when everything went blurry. I knew Jared and Chris went next and I knew something was going on on the stage but the only thing I could think of was the shock that I could sense from immediately behind me. There was no booing, no chants of “USA! USA!”, there was just this incredible reduction in noise. I didn’t know how much of the crowd we affected but we did silence the part of it immediately surrounding us. We did it. We disrupted their beer-guzzling, flesh eating, masculinity-worshipping, jingoistic gluttony. We had been forced to endure hours and hours of their bigotry, but that was our moment – a moment of resistance.
Rachel, Amanda and Jared were dragged off the stage by cops. I quickly ran to the side of the stage only to see Jared being held by the scruff of his neck and being roughed up. I saw some of my best friends being hauled away out of the enclosure, and I felt so helpless, but I knew that that moment wasn’t about me. It was about the activists who actually risked being arrested. It was about their bravery, compassion and strength. More importantly, it was about the non-human animals - they were what all this was about.
It’s amazing how much the activists’ passion for freedom and their commitment to justice are interlinked with the animals’ liberation. We need to hold on to those qualities for their sake. We have only just started to harness our potential as a movement to take brave and effective disruptive, nonviolent direct action for non-human animals. I honestly believe that the struggle for their freedom will only get bigger and better. I believe not only that animal liberation is possible but also inevitable.
As Chris and I were trying to make our way out of the crowd comprising thousands, I heard the winner being announced. I couldn’t have cared less. All I cared about at that moment was making sure the activists from the other group were okay and getting jail support as soon as possible. I didn’t know the number of media hits we would get. I didn’t know how the world would react, the kind of verbal abuse that would be directed at us online, what the reactions of the families of those taken to jail would be like, or how much time my friends were going to spend in jail. All I knew at that point in time was something I had known for a while – that animals’ lives are their right and that we have just begun….