When I Was Arrested for an animal rights protest
By Leslie Goldberg
To get arrested or not to get arrested, that was the question. Before we did the sit-in at the Oakland slaughterhouse in late October, Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) activists were asked by DxE organizers if we were willing to: 1) get arrested and get bailed out right away; or 2) get arrested and spend the night in jail; or 3) get arrested and spend three nights in jail; or 4) face felony prosecution and possibly go to prison under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA.)
Obviously folks who get arrested don’t usually get their choices laid out like that, but we planned to commit civil disobedience, meaning we were willing to protest in a way that might land us in jail. We understood that certain actions were likely to provoke certain reactions. If, say, we had decided to free 2,000 minks trapped on a fur farm, the possibility of ending up in a maximum security prison with a felony conviction under the AETA would be very real. However, a sit-in at a small Bay Area slaughterhouse would likely result in a fine or community service with little chance of significant of jail time.
But what if we did more than a sit-in? What if we removed (rescued?) a small number of sick and dying animals and took them to the vet? What might the consequences be for that? Would an officer or a court decide we were stealing? Or would we be able to make the case that removing an animal from a cruel situation is a perfectly reasonable and responsible thing to do, or even the only moral thing to do?
California passed a law recently giving citizens the green light to smash car windows to free a suffering and endangered animal from a hot car. What is the difference between a hot car and a filthy cage, crowded with not only other sick animals but dead animals and that afforded no water or food? So far, no court has decided.
Activist lawyer Steven Wise of the Nonhuman Rights Project has been fighting for more than 20 years for some species of animals to be granted legal personhood. Currently, under the law, animals are still considered things or property. But they are also not considered just property, as some animals receive some legal protections against certain kinds of harm. More and more people are sitting in prison today for cruelty to animals and yet people are also sitting in prison for trying to prevent animal cruelty. Society and, by extension, the courts have not resolved the apparent contradiction.
When I was a newspaper reporter, I happened to be sitting in San Francisco Municipal Court, for a story. I watched many cases go before the judge. Shoplifting, prostitution, possession of marijuana – those cases were being dismissed right and left. But drunk driving? It was a different story. Those charged with DUI, unlike the others, all had attorneys. And those convicted of drunk driving, which was everybody who came before the judge that day, were getting hefty fines and ending up with as much as 1-year county jail sentences.
The point is, to a large extent, the courts follow public opinion. Drunk driving didn’t used to be a big deal. Cops often just drove drunks home (especially if they were white!) That was before Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) galvanized public outrage. Under that public pressure, law enforcement and the courts started to change. Courts and cops got tougher (even on white people.)
Throughout the United States and also the world, communities are now demanding tougher anti-cruelty laws and tougher enforcement, particularly with regards to dogs and cats. The public is also becoming more concerned about endangered wildlife and more concerned about how animals raised for food are treated.
While we activists were cited (given tickets) for misdemeanor trespassing for our sit-in at the slaughterhouse, no charges were actually filed. Those activists who removed the quail, the lamb and bunny weren’t even cited. In the progressive Bay Area, there is little appetite for jailing animal-loving, non-violent protesters. Still, the slaughter of animals for food is legal in the Bay Area and most of the public doesn’t yet take seriously the harm caused by the exploitation of animals for profit.
Our movement is about getting folks to take this issue seriously. Our mass arrest of 23 activists did what it was supposed to do – garnered huge public attention. Both television and print covered us. Online, thousands and thousands saw for themselves the grim conditions inside a small, “family-owned” and “local” slaughterhouse.
Viewers also saw activists deliberately putting themselves at personal risk for their belief that this senseless killing of animals is absolutely wrong and must be stopped. Public demonstrations, disruptions and arrests are a way for the public to begin to understand that allowing the exploitation of animals ends up torturing and killing sentient beings who wanted to live, who deserved to live. The current dire situation for animals is urgent and serious. What we animal rights activists are doing is urgent and serious. As the band the Talking Heads once sang, “This ain’t no foolin’ around.”
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