“Does activism really make a difference?”
Leaping gazelles and the subtle power of community organizing
By Julianne Perry
In the midst of peacefully grazing on open plains, gazelles can be seen occasionally, and seemingly randomly, leaping very high in place, all four feet raised. The action is puzzling at first glance -- expending valuable energy while making the gazelle very visible to area predators.
Meanwhile, all around the globe, activists face a similar brand of scrutiny for spending time and other resources on street marches, protests, boycotts, and various other forms of nonviolent direct action.
“Waste of time.”
“Are people actually paying attention?”
“Doesn’t activism turn people off?”
Activists are familiar with the common criticisms. But does our history of social change offer a differing perspective?
In the fall of 2016 the Berkeley Animal Rights Center, located in a city-owned building, was suddenly served an eviction notice. The action followed a series of protests by Berkeley ARC activists at popular local establishments that sold animal flesh. The eviction notice seemed clearly politically-motivated, citing trivial, common infractions like the use of a key lockbox and workouts happening in “office space.” The activist community sprang into action, protesting a Berkeley City Council meeting. The eviction was subsequently dropped.
Another example -- animal advocates in the Bay Area have probed representatives for legislative protection for animals for decades. These efforts had minimal support in the way of sustained action, and achieved minimal results. Like most representatives, San Francisco Supervisor Katy Tang is continually inundated with proposals from her constituents, and must inevitably say no in most cases. DxE sought dialogue for years, but our seedling grassroots presence was not really on the radar. More recently, our community and visibility has grown, and last October, Pulitzer Prize winner Glenn Greenwald spotlighted our work in a groundbreaking expose regarding an FBI coverup effort following a DxE investigation of a Smithfield pig farm. This international story was made possible not only by the handful of investigators in the field or on DxE’s press team, but also by the thousands of grassroots activists taking part in protests on the heels of the investigation and spreading the message to millions via social media. The media attention and subsequent lauding of the story by thousands of activists prompted Supervisor Tang to give DxE reps substantive deference. This led her to introduce the current San Francisco fur ban ordinance, with an open door to future legislation for animals.
It turns out that the bizarre behavior of gazelles, known as stotting, is likely an evolutionary adaptation for survival -- a prominent athletic display to signal predators that they’re better off moving on.* Similarly, through our persistent activist presence in the San Francisco Bay, DxE signals our strength to the powers-that-be. With hundreds regularly taking collective action, politicians -- at least those interested in continued employment -- are left to choose whether they want a powerful political force with or against them.
Local community organizing is widely understood to be vital in creating social change; “power in movement grows when ordinary people join forces in contentious confrontation with elites, authorities and opponents.” In order for the animal rights movement to take full advantage of social trigger events, we must continually flex our activist muscles. While our impact isn’t linear, and often doesn’t offer immediate gratification, we know that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can indeed change the world.
*The gazelle stotting analogy originated in Zeynep Tufekci’s book “Twitter and Tear Gas” -- a highly recommended read for the modern activist