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"An Opiate to the Conscience": Welfarism as a Step to Animal Liberation?

"An opiate to the conscience": welfarism as a step to animal liberation?

By Brian Burns

The American Colonization Society said that its moderate message, which sought to bring slaveowners and abolitionists closer together, would  eventually  lead to the end of legal slavery in the US. Why do modern historians say the opposite?

The American Colonization Society said that its moderate message, which sought to bring slaveowners and abolitionists closer together, would eventually lead to the end of legal slavery in the US. Why do modern historians say the opposite?

Advocates of welfarism often claim that while the “humane” use and murder of animals is not the end goal, advocating for welfare reforms while not challenging the notion of animals as property will make the public more sympathetic to animal rights, and thus move us towards animal liberation. Whole Foods CEO and self-professed “ethical vegan” John Mackey, for example, unapologetically frames Whole Foods as a groundbreaking progress-maker for both animals and public consciousness in response to an open letter by James McWilliams calling for the company to stop selling meat.

Is this correct? Is there historical evidence showing that a moderate message which appeals to those in the “middle of the aisle” will eventually push them closer to one end? To examine this question, I discussed trends in the antislavery movement in the US from the mid-1810s through the 1830s as part of a DxE open meeting on welfarism . Most of the information presented was gathered from Paul Goodman’s book, Of One Blood.

“An Opiate to the Conscience” - The American Colonization Society of the Early 1800s

From the early 1800s, the antislavery movement in the United States was dominated by a large, government-backed group called the American Colonization Society (ACS). As Paul Goodman writes, “The most important function of the ACS was to ensure sectional harmony by offering a platform sufficiently broad and vague on which both slaveholders and nonslaveholders, professed abolitionists and anti-abolitionists, North and South, could stand” (Goodman, 18). Despite its stated purpose - to improve the welfare of slaves in the South and convince their masters to free them to an ACS-created colony in West Africa, “the ACS renounced any intention of interfering with slavery in the United States. (Goodman, 16).” In fact, the society was extremely hostile towards those agitating against slaveowners: “It insisted that any agitation that placed masters under moral scrutiny or political pressure or questioned their Christian benevolence would chill the inclination to manumit … Nor must one ever speak too harshly of slavery itself, the suffering of the victims and the cruelty of the master, lest slavery become a moral issue for public discussion” (Goodman, 18-19). 

The American Colonization Society, far from pushing the public towards abolitionism, reduced both Southern and Northern tension surrounding the issue of slavery. From our talk on the psychology of welfarism, we know that discomfort and cognitive dissonance are essential to motivate people to change their deep-set beliefs - and the ACS was extremely efficient at reducing both of them. Goodman writes, “In the North, apathy and indifference toward slavery were the toughest barriers… For most, until abolitionist agitation pricked their consciences, [slavery] was a distant abstraction” (Goodman, 124). Despite the organization’s widespread popularity both in the South and North and consensus at the time that it was pushing towards abolition, the resolution of tension and feel-good consciousness created by the society were, according to Fogel and many others, some of the “toughest barriers” towards the end of legal human slavery in the US. 

The Importance of Agitation

By “abolitionist agitation,” Goodman refers to the explosion of grassroots antislavery activism in the 1830s. Sparked by activists who felt silenced by the ACS (many of whom were former members of the society), independent chapters of self-styled “immediatists” began to pop up around the country, learning from each other via long letters and word of mouth. The action taken by these activists was radical and dangerous: William Lloyd Garrison’s public burning of the US constitution, which he called a “covenant with death”, almost left him dead after a lynch mob attempted to murder him (ironically he was saved by the police, who seized him and threw him in jail for his protest). Goodman writes that “Abolitionism grew, by contrast [to the ACS], in the teeth of elite hostility, intense popular prejudice, and physical violence, and it required an exceptional organizational and ideological commitment.” 

Despite these obstacles, however, the radical abolitionist movement was extremely successful, growing from four to 1348 independent chapters in just six years - a 34,000% increase in activism (Goodman, 124). This exceptional growth coupled with a strong message and provocative activism had extreme influence on public dialogue and political action on slavery, pushing public tension to ultimately to the brink of the Civil War. And as the antislavery societies rose across the US, the ACS was put on the defense, eventually discredited as a racist organization opposing rather than acting for progress.

What Can We Learn? 

Despite its profound power, agitation can be extraordinarily difficult as social animals. The nice, middle-of-the-road approach is often much more appealing, and often may seem to be the more effective way to enact change, since it does not elicit backlash. No surprise then, that companies such as Whole Foods have capitalized on its appeal to consumers by offering the same products of violence - meat, dairy, and eggs - sold in a more “compassionate” way. 

Unfortunately, the appeal of “moderatism” is precisely the reason behind its failure; in order to motivate people to reconsider their deep-set beliefs, one has to make them uncomfortable by presenting very different alternatives, and disrupting routine to force attention to these alternatives. Sometimes, seeking to reform the periphery of the system without attacking its root is the best way to ensure it survives and thrives. Such was the case in the American antislavery movement in the early 1800s, and such may be the case in the animal rights movement today.

Interview with Baltimore-Based Animal Liberationist Brenda Sanders

Interview with Baltimore-Based Animal Liberationist Brenda Sanders

By Saryta Rodriguez


Recently, I had the honor of speaking with Brenda Sanders, an amazing activist based in Baltimore, MD.  Brenda runs a successful vegan mentoring program called Vegan Living and works with Open Cages Alliance.  Below, she shares her extremely valuable insights on race challenges in the AR community as well as details about the incredible work she's doing.  Thank you so much, Brenda!


SR:  Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to DxE.

BNS: Thanks, Saryta.

SR:  Please share with us how you two first became involved in the Animal Liberation Movement.  Were you inspired by a particular event or person in your life, or in the liberationist community?

Brenda Sanders.

Brenda Sanders.

BNS: A few years ago I realized that I was starting to feel a connection with animals. It was a strange experience for me, since I had never thought much about animals prior to that. I was suddenly seeing them as individuals and becoming concerned about the way humans were choosing to treat them. When I tried to express these thoughts to other people they laughed. So I began looking for like-minded people and I was fortunate enough to stumble across Open the Cages Alliance, an organization with a strong animal liberation message.

SR:  While some claim that we are living in a “post-racial” society, recent court cases regarding police brutality coupled with the dominant faces of many social movements tell a different story.  Animal liberation is one such movement, perceived by many to be a “white people thing.”

How has being POCs (persons of color) impacted your experiences as animal liberationists?

BNS: It’s interesting because as an African-American, I’m extremely motivated to educate other African-Americans about the horrible exploitation animals are experiencing at the hands of humans. The problem is that I’ve been witnessing so much racial bias within the Animal Liberation movement that I’ve found that I’m sometimes reluctant to even associate myself with the movement – especially in my outreach to marginalized communities.

SR:  What advice might you offer to other liberationist POCs who may be struggling to gain acceptance of their values in their racial communities, or who would like to encourage other POCs to join the movement?

BNS: That’s a really tough question, one that I struggle with everyday. I think I would say, “Blaze Your Own Path.” It’s possible to be a part of a movement while not embodying every single thing that movement represents. Yes, there is a lot of racism, sexism and classism within the Animal Liberation movement but that doesn’t make the work of freeing animals from human tyranny any less important.

SR:  What might recent instances of nonviolent direct action that have occurred as a result of the Michael Brown and Eric Garner decisions teach us about the intersectionality of racism and speciesism?  To what extent do you think liberationists should be cautious in drawing parallels between the two, and how might such parallels be illustrated most effectively?

BNS: The marches and demonstrations that have been sweeping across the country - and the world - in response to the Michael Brown and Eric Garner decisions show us that people from different ethnic backgrounds, economic statuses, age groups, and cultural identities can all come together to speak out against inequality. There is no more effective way to create change in the world than for people from all walks of life to speak as one voice to demand justice. It’s important that animal liberationists make the connections between the oppression of animals and all other systems of oppression but animal liberationists have to be careful not to appropriate other people’s struggle for justice merely for the purpose of highlighting animal suffering. Making a sincere effort to reach out and ally themselves to others who are engaged in similar struggles would be a great first step.

SR: I understand you are heavily involved with the Open Cages Alliance (OTCA). Can you please tell us a bit about this organization and how you came to be involved with it?

BNS: As I mentioned before, I found Open the Cages Alliance in my search for others who were working to stop the exploitation of animals – and I’m so glad I did! OTCA’s strong message of animal liberation combined with the drive to connect these issues with other social justice issues was exactly what I was looking for. I started out as a volunteer in 2013 and have since stepped up as one of the directors of the organization.

SR:  How is the Open Cages Alliance organized, and what are some of its short-term and long-term goals?

BNS: Open the Cages Alliance is an all-volunteer organization run at this time by three women who are dedicated to animal liberation and raising awareness of the connection between the different systems of oppression. One of our goals is to educate the public about the systemic exploitation of non-human animals while offering everyday alternatives to these oppressive actions. We also work to build coalitions with other social justice activists, including those activists in Baltimore involved in the Blacklivesmatter movement.

SR:  Please tell us about one of your favorite actions, lectures or other events in which you’ve taken part since joining the alliance.

BNS: One of my favorite actions with Open the Cages Alliance was the lecture and discussion we conducted on the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act in conjunction with the Week of Action Against the AETA. It was so rewarding to engage in a discussion with other activists about the implications of this legislation and how we can affectively move forward with our activism in spite of the pushback from the animal exploitation industries.

SR:  You are also an active member of a vegan mentoring program. What is the program called, and what are some of the core values that you and other mentors impart to its mentees?

BNS: The Vegan Living Program is a yearly five-week-long vegan educational program run by Open the Cages Alliance. The purpose of this program is to teach people the ins and outs of the vegan lifestyle, including an understanding of what veganism actually is (a lifestyle that avoids the exploitation of animals) and how veganism can benefit our personal health, the animals we share the planet with and the planet itself.

SR: How does the Vegan Living Program impart the liberationist message, beyond promoting a vegan lifestyle?

BNS: The Open the Cages Alliance directors are, first and foremost, animal liberationists. The total liberation of animals from human tyranny is the foundation that our activism is built on and our programming ALWAYS reflects that. We see the vegan lifestyle as one of the vehicles through which animal liberation can be actualized, therefore we feel perfectly comfortable promoting veganism. We do, however, understand that veganism is only a small step towards bringing an end to all forms of exploitation and oppression.

SR:  How do you ensure, or at least increase the likelihood, that mentees remain committed to animal liberation after they have completed the program? Do you often engage in follow-up conversations or activities with former mentees?

BNS: The purpose of the program is to educate and inspire. Once Vegan Living Program participants know why it’s wrong to exploit animals and what a lifestyle free of exploitation looks like, we stay engaged with program participants through the numerous protests, demonstrations and events that we have throughout the year. Many of our former vegan pledges come back to serve as vegan coaches in the VLP, participate in our demonstrations and stay actively engaged in the vegan community that we’re growing here in Baltimore.

SR: Please tell our readers a bit about your involvement with DxE.

BNS: I first became aware of DxE when I heard about the campaign against Chipotle’s “humane meat” marketing. I was inspired to get involved in that campaign because I was so disgusted at Chipotle’s attempts to woo more customers with deceptive marketing. After Wayne and Ronnie visited Baltimore in August 2014 for the East Coast tour, I was motivated to keep the momentum going with the disruptions and began organizing with other people in Baltimore to do regular disruptions.

SR:  Thank you so much, again for sharing your insights and experiences with us!

One last question: What is your spirit animal?

A short-tailed hawk wearing a quizzical expression.

A short-tailed hawk wearing a quizzical expression.

BNS: If I had a spirit animal it would be the hawk because of it’s superb vision and ability to follow through once it sets out on a course of action.

Interview with Marie and Butterfly, Founders of Solfood Catering and Cafe Caravan

Interview with Marie and Butterfly, Founders of Solfood Catering and Cafe Caravan

By Natalie Blanton

I grew up in a sleepy, conservative, violence- and hunter-centric Utah mountain town. Unintended teen pregnancy and deer-skinnings in the front yard were visible and rampant. It was this environment that cultivated my awe, wonder, and full alignment with ecofeminism, veganism, liberationism, and the diverse feminist fights occurring across society today.

A few weeks back, I was contacted by a pair of women identifying as Marie and Butterfly of Solfood Catering, hailing from Little Rock, Arkansas. They spoke my language. They were working directly with Carol Adams, author of The Sexual Politics of Meat, the mother goddess of all my ecofeminist ideologies; and shared my passion for the inextricable ties between plant-based diets, animal liberation and women’s liberation.

Marie and Butterfly are currently on tour as Café Caravan, with their remarkable ability of creating delectable vegan food, bringing people together with a liberationist message, and bridging the divide between human and nonhuman animal rights.

Interviewer Natalie Blanton (far right), her partner Harold (far left) and the Solfood Catering team (center).

Interviewer Natalie Blanton (far right), her partner Harold (far left) and the Solfood Catering team (center).

I had a chance to interviewing these two wonderful women about their tour, their involvement in the Animal Liberation Movement, and their stories:

NB: What made you originally go vegan?

Both: Health reasons, initially; but then, personal research and experience led us to other avenues of vegan outreach and activism.

Marie: I was in Egypt when I encountered a horse in a cramped corner market. It was harnessed with blinders on, undernourished, and looked generally miserable. I could feel its presence, though—more than animals ever before. I remember thinking, “What is your name?” to the horse, and the response came back overwhelmingly: “I don’t know.” I decided right then and there that we do not have to treat other beings like this.

NB: What did you think when you first heard of veganism?

Marie: I thought it was so extreme and only raw foods.

Butterfly: I thought it sounded like something I wanted to try—but just couldn’t because it would be too expensive or too hard. When I gave it a try, my joint problems, insomnia…everything just stopped. It heals the body.

NB: How did this vegan outreach come out of Little Rock?

Butterfly: It began with the raw food movement and public support at farmer’s markets on the weekends. People would smell our food and not believe it was vegan.

NB: How do you equate feminism with veganism?

Marie: Read The Sexual Politics of Meat—once you have read that, you cannot forget it. People think that dairy products are “so humane,” but this could not be less true. Kept constantly pregnant and lactating sounds worse to me than death. By making a slave of the cow and then killing the body once it can no longer produce—that is how you get your dairy.

Patriarchy couldn’t survive without this enslavement and cooption of female bodies. People no longer have to do that work—these creatures are simply fed into the machine and forgotten.

Butterfly: The humane meat movement is ridiculous. You think it’s better to treat someone nicely and then kill them?

NB: What are some ways in which your business has supported, or seeks to support, feminist groups, actions and initiatives?

Both: Our business supports feminist actions by offering plant-based nutrition workshops to populations of underserved mothers and women, thus sharing with them the ideals of how their tation in life is connected to the liberation of other species.

We give workshops on women's health, for example—fibroid elimination and cancer prevention. That workshop gives them a plethora of information, from how to eliminate the actual fibroid to how to heal themselves mentally and spiritually. We reiterate that diseases that affect women aren't just physical ailments—they are often self-esteem driven and/or environmentally driven.

Focusing on what things in our lives are no longer valid and hold us back, making us feel less than, and then taking steps to rid ourselves of them helps us to become viable, contributing forces in the world and for ourselves. Self-care is important, and most women have not a clue. To be a feminist/activist, you have to first love yourself. Otherwise, you won't be around to make a difference for women—or anybody. 

NB: I have received many critiques of animal rights activism as being a classist, white, privileged movement. Can you comment on this for me?

Marie: Go ask 500 million Hindus and the rest of the world who does this all of their lives. Some of the world’s poorest are thriving off of this lifestyle. If meat is eaten in these communities, it is a fraction of their intake. Everybody in the village can be fed off of a few grains for weeks. Take a look at tofu’s protein and nutrient make-up and compare that to the same amount of ground beef. Then we can have this conversation of price comparisons.

NB: Do you have any advice to offer to liberationists organizations regarding how they can better embrace communities of color, and/or how to reach across classes, here in the US?

Both: Yes, and in fact we were just discussing this challenge a few days ago!  These liberation organizations need to strike while the iron is hot, so to speak, with the topic of police brutality having its day in the sun in national media. There are so many disaffected young people of color with no purpose, calling or motivation that have so much energy that can be channeled in a positive direction. There should be outreach programs that specifically target these communities. Take it to the schools, take it to the corners, take it to the churches.

Everyone wants to talk about there is no food, there are no jobs, etc. Taking time with young people to teach them and engage them in the arts, including gardening, gives them direction, focus and something to do.

We ran a program a couple of years ago called Fresh Start, where we worked with a group of young women of color to plant a garden in the yards of people from our community. We had two volunteers who allowed us to come into their homes and lay out plans for a garden. The girls not only dug the gardens and planted seeds with us, but they were also responsible for the filming of this process.  Teaching theses two skills has given them something that they can take and make their own. We can't just sit by and say, “The youth are causing problems; they have no direction.” We have to be bold enough to seek them out and give them something worthwhile and productive to do. If we don't, someone else will.

NB:  I am curious as to how the South of the United States responds to veganism?

Marie: We have been keen and aware of this as well. We have been showing low-income parents these “Cooking Matters” classes.

Butterfly: We explain to them that if they live in a resource or food “desert”—an environment or city that does not have walk-able resources (within 1 mile), such as fresh fruits, vegetables, or grocery stores—like many of us do in the South, by grabbing bulk non-perishable legumes you can have meals for weeks. Try your local Mexican or ethnic markets for legumes (dried beans, etc.) they are inexpensive and last forever. Try twp bags of lentils, seasoned; put some grain and lettuce in with them, and you have meals for days.

Marie: In areas with high minority concentrations, farming and gardening continues to be connected to slavery. There is stigma against growing your own food, and it is almost a status symbol to be able to go to the grocery store or through the fast food drive-thru. In Little Rock, there is a center for Urban Farming and Ecology with different organizations doing outreach regarding how to grow for yourself and your family; but there is such a resistance. You cannot be an outsider who thinks they can make a change—you need to be there for years.

Butterfly: Teach your kids to play in the dirt. They need that tactile connection to the earth. We need to teach new generations of people to live off of the land and be willing to work in urban farms.

Marie: Once young people get to high school, it is too late. Arkansas has a summer program called Learning through the Arts. I teach the culinary arts and 95% of my students, from low-income and rougher pasts, do not understand what average vegetables look like or where they come from. They couldn’t identify anything beyond green beans.

NB: How do you think veganism and your movement can aid in combating hunger?

Marie: We get this “escapism” mentality in November and December. We allow ourselves to indulge and escape from the humdrum everyday reality and world.

Butterfly: Everything gets all glossy this time of year—but come January 1st we are right back to where we were.

Marie: There is a stigma attached to being poor, and a lot of people will not ask for help; but just like there is no shame in helping others, there is no shame in being poor. People across the spectrum are working equally as hard; there needs to be redistribution of wealth. Businesses, corporations, and farms need to be a part of this redistribution, and not just write it off.

Butterfly: Empathy and compassion are lost when there is this solution—making everything a tax write off. It is hard to think about people in your own community being hungry when there is a new iPhone coming out. This is escapism; this is what consumerism and capitalism is built around. Got to give them something, right?

NB: The Internet world would have it known that these are all currents of influence that will eventually and inevitably fade. Is this all a fad? Feminism? Veganism?

Marie: Well, you know feminism isn’t a fad.

Butterfly: Veganism is not a fad; but there is always going to be somebody who wants it to remain unpopular because it is trying to change their ideas. It works; healing our bodies and our planet is not a fad.

NB: What do you want to say to feminists who are not vegan, or who refuse to equate animal rights with human rights?

Butterfly: I have two words for these people: Rape Racks.

Marie: Yeah, tell them about the Rape Racks—the dairy farmer slang for the mechanism used to artificially inseminate and perpetually impregnate mother cows. Also, encourage them to read The Sexual Politics of Meat and then see where they stand. Simply observe your environment. Where did that milk and cheese come from? How do we have this constant supply of milk? Why are we the only animals that drink milk into our later life?

We also need to encourage empathy for all animals. If you can have empathy for your dog or your cat, you can have it for a cow or a chicken. 


Here’s to you, Marie and Butterfly of Solfood Catering and Café Caravan. Thank you for sharing social justice and vegan love in such a unique way. These remarkable ladies are currently on tour, and may very well be coming to a city near you. I could not encourage you more to take this opportunity to catch up with them in person, or on their Facebook page. You can also donate to their initiatives here

Why Race Matters (especially for Animal Rights Activists)

Why Race Matters (especially for animal activists)

Working against racism is not just the right thing to do. As a world-renowned scholar points out, it's the only way our movement will grow, both at home and abroad. 

By Wayne Hsiung

Will Kymlicka

Will Kymlicka

Will Kymlicka is one of the most influential philosophers of our time. His work on multiculturalism and human rights has spawned dozens of books by distinguished scholars in the field, and it has influenced an entire generation of human rights practitioners. A professor at one of Canada's most prestigious universities, he is also far from being a "radical anti-racism activist."

And yet Kymlicka, along with his co-author Sue Donaldson, has an important critique of our movement. We are, in both our shocking lack of diversity and our demonization of non-white/Western peoples and practices, shooting ourselves in the foot. 

In both of these ways – the broader public’s targeting of ‘cruel’ minority practices and the AR movement’s promoting of a vegan lifestyle – contemporary animal politics is often seen not just as presupposing a privileged white perspective, but also as reaffirming or relegitimating those racial privileges, treating white perspectives as normative while ignoring the extent to which those perspectives are made possible by the oppression of others. Animal advocacy, in short, is seen as performing whiteness....

There is arguably no greater sin on the Left in North America today than performing whiteness, and progressive organizations will avoid associating with any cause that they suspect will be accused of doing so. Mainstream feminist, gay, disability or anti-poverty groups have faced their own accusations of performing whiteness, and have undergone wrenching internal debates to include racial minorities in their work. Having created what are often still fragile alliances with racial minorities, they are reluctant to embrace any cause that might jeopardize those links.

I share his words because my appeal to PETA yesterday was not a critique of one organization or campaign. It was a call for us to rethink basic assumptions about our movement. Should we be targeting "others" in distant communities or cultures, or pushing harder to change the practices of our own friends, families, and communities? Should we be glorifying rich Western celebrities, or empowering marginalized voices -- voices from communities who, like animals, have also suffered from violence -- to be ambassadors for trans-species justice? Should we frame our movement as a Western consumer lifestyle movement (in a world where billions still struggle in extreme poverty), or as a global movement to stop violence against the most oppressed beings on this planet? Should we be performing whiteness -- privileging white, Western perspectives over those of oppressed peoples (and animals) all over the world -- or should we be fighting for justice -- showing the ties between all forms of discriminatory violence and, by doing so, connecting the cause of animals to historic movements for human rights?

These are all big picture questions that extend far beyond a single campaign. And we must answer them well because, as Kymlicka powerfully argues, not only do these questions determine our attempts to build global solidarity... they build a foundation (or, if answered poorly, a non-foundation) for our movement's growth here at home. 

Check out the full article here. It's a must-read. 

How PETA’s Chinese “Dog Leather” Campaign Hurts Dogs (and Other Animals)

An investigation of the dog leather trade in China showed horrifying abuse. But did it help dogs?

An investigation of the dog leather trade in China showed horrifying abuse. But did it help dogs?

How PETA’s CHINESE “Dog Leather” Campaign Hurts Dogs (and Other Animals)

The dog leather campaign fails the animals in three ways: by promoting racism, by promoting speciesism, and by promoting inaction in the face of violence. Here's what we can do to change that. 

By Wayne Hsiung

[Note: a friend who used to work at PETA wrote to me expressing concern that this post would inevitably be perceived as an attack on PETA and its supporters, and that I should therefore move the below words to the top of the post. I think this is good advice -- particularly since the issues I am discussing in this article extend far beyond a single organization or campaign. You can read a more in-depth account of the problem in a three-part series here. Anyways, here are the words: 

This is not an attack on PETA. Some of my hardest working and most dedicated friends work at PETA. And PETA’s founder, Ingrid Newkirk, lives a Spartan lifestyle, devotes every waking moment to animals, and has shown true genius in understanding the crucial role of disruption and provocation in building movements. PETA is also one of the only nonprofits that has consistently shown support for grassroots activists. Rather, this is a heartfelt request for us to collectively do better...

I'd also like to emphasize that I don't think there was necessarily any intentional racism on the part of PETA employees. The issues set out here, in fact, are cultural and systemic in origin. And I know many PETA employees who are fiercely devoted to the right of every animal -- human or non-human -- to be free from discrimination or violence. But anyways, on to the blog post... ]

I’m crying, furious, and filled with a near-unbearable feeling of shame. Because, once again, my people are killing dogs.

PETA unveiled a horrifying investigation of “dog leather” in China yesterday. And the video is devastating. A little brown dog, shaking in terror, is dragged out of a filthy, dark room. She backs up against a wall and looks up in fear, as if to beg the man who is dragging her, “Please, sir, don’t hurt me. What did I do to you?” But he ignores her entreaties, lifts up a huge wooden club, and begins to smash her head with horrifying ferocity. The little dog cries out. But she is small, weak, and defenseless. Her brutalizer is massive, strong, and armed. All she can do is shriek in terror as he bludgeons her head over and over and over again. Soon she collapses to the ground. Two men cut the little dog’s throat and throw her into a huge bucket of water, where numerous corpses have already been tossed. They don’t seem to bother with determining whether she’s actually dead, so she may very well have drowned in a pool of her own blood.

Little Lisa. 

Little Lisa. 

The narrator tells us that many of these dogs are stolen from their families on the city streets. I can’t help but wonder… what if this were my little Lisa? What is the difference between the little brown dog I am seeing on the screen and the one I hug every night before I go to bed? The comparison is almost unbelievable. Just a glimpse into that nightmare brings my world crashing to the ground. Lisa, the light of my life, my favorite person, my happy child in a world so often filled with desolation, sadness, and pain…. Lisa, dragged to such a hellish and violent place? Impossible.

But it is possible, as the PETA investigation shows. Someone just like my little girl -- just as innocent, just as loving, and just as deserving of safety, happiness, and freedom -- is being brutalized at this very moment. 

So why am I disgusted… with the campaign?

1. The campaign plays on racism to draw support, and undermines our attempts to inspire Chinese activists to take action.

The PETA video, like so many other campaigns against Chinese practices, relies on an American-sounding narrator describing horrible abuses by the Chinese. It has the feel of a nature documentary, with dirty, violent, animalistic Asians contrasted with the calm, compassionate, English-speaking narrator.   

The video’s headline is the “Chinese Dog Leather industry.” Yet when was the last time an investigation of farms in the United States targeted Americans by decrying the “Brutal American Pig Flesh Industry?” 

The campaign decries the lack of animal welfare laws in China. Yet the US’s animal welfare laws are toothless and filled with exceptions advocated by industry, e.g. the wholesale removal of all birds from the requirements of the Humane Slaughter Act.

One of the thousands of dogs rescued from slaughter by grassroots activists in China. 

And the campaign fails to include a positive Asian face to counter-balance the horrible acts of cruelty. Yet the video ignores the fact that, as a product of PETA-Asia, Chinese activists almost certainly played a role in this investigation. Or the fact that recent grassroots mobilizations have inspired countless Chinese to travel great distances to block trucks delivering dogs to meat factories -- at significant personal risk in a nation where civil disobedience is often met with violent oppression. The movement has saved thousands of dogs from slaughter through these courageous acts of nonviolent direct action. When did we last see any similar action taken in the United States for the millions of dogs killed in experiments or “shelters” including, distressingly, many thousands killed by PETA itself? Those Chinese, it seems, could attack “barbaric Americans” (and “barbaric animal activists”) for their heartlessness, cruelty, and cowardice toward dogs.

All of that, however, is ignored. And with such a biased framing, it’s no surprise that the public’s reaction to the video is filled with hate against the Chinese. One of the top comments (approved by over 200 others) is as simple as it is antagonistic: “I hate China.” Many people state that they will boycott the entire nation for the faults of a few.  “[E]veryone should boycott chink made goods!” As usual, the strangest attacks are made by those who decry the Chinese as “not human”: “The more I learn about China the more I have come to believe that culture is for the most part not civilized - in fact, not even human at all,” says one. “Disgusting China. Filled with monsters, not humans,” says another. Why is being “non-human” used as an insult among advocates for non-human animal rights?

Perhaps most troubling are the many comments endorsing racial violence. Someone replies by advocating a nuclear attack: “China is the worst country in the world… nuclear bomb please!” Another commenter suggests replacing the dogs with Chinese: “lets have some chinamen hats… made from their mean slant eyed mother fuckers skins!” It’s enough to make even a fairly well-adjusted Chinese person, such as myself, a little shaken. What are the people on the streets of America actually thinking about the Chinese? What are they actually thinking about me?

You might reject this as paranoia, but discrimination is part of our historical experience as Chinese. We remember that a shocking 68% of Americans express unapologetically negative sentiments towards us, including a recently-viral, profanity-laced anti-Chinese rant in SF. We remember that Vincent Chin, blamed for the declining auto industry, was brutally bludgeoned to death for the crime of being born different. (The men who murdered him did not receive any jail time.) We remember that ludicrous rumors involving our integrity and loyalty continue to be spread even by the flagship “progressive” media outlets of our day, such as The New York Times or ABC. And we remember that far more Asians have been killed by the US government in the past 50 years than the people of any other continent. And we are understandably concerned.

Campaigns such as PETA’s, which incite terrifyingly-violent rhetoric, contribute to this fear. And perhaps the worst part of all is that the animals -- including those poor dogs in rural China -- are being undermined in the process. Because we know that, to effect change, we have to start in local communities. This is not just ethical but effective; sociological research shows us that our ability to impact those outside of our local communities is weak. We have to find Chinese supporters if we want to save the animals of China. We have to inspire people of all nations and continents, and all cultures and creeds, to solve the global problem of animal exploitation.

We have to represent the world to change the world.

At Direct Action Everywhere, we avoid ethnic targeting for exactly this reason. There are countless Chinese who have cried just as many tears, and felt just as much anger, over the murder of dogs and other animals. There are Chinese people risking their lives to help animals in need. There’s a Chinese kid out there -- who has faced despair, bullying and violence himself -- who is just as desperate as any one of us to save that little brown dog in the video. To reject these potential allies would be a disservice to the movement. To allow a Chinese kid with a big heart for animals to be subjected to racist threats is an incredible betrayal to the animals we represent. We simply have to do better.

2. The campaign is speciesist, i.e. it privileges dogs over other animals, and thereby reinforces the notion that human beings can arbitrarily decide which animals matter.

But what of public support? The dog leather campaign has mobilized a truly astounding level of public attention and outrage. In less than one day, PETA’s video has been watched by nearly a million people and shared by over 50,000. Many say that focusing on industries such as dog leather, marginal though they may be, is strategic because it is the “low hanging fruit” -- easy to garner opposition to, and just as easy to destroy.  

This confuses the basic function of the activist. We are not here to be popular. We are not here to cater to existing views. We are here to challenge and change those views. And focusing thoughtlessly on a single species, based on human perceptions of special worth, reinforces the species prejudice that feeds the entire system of animal abuse.

Shooting stink bombs at foreigners may give Westerners self-satisfaction. But does it help whales? 

Shooting stink bombs at foreigners may give Westerners self-satisfaction. But does it help whales? 

Anti-whaling campaigns are perhaps the greatest example of this. As the Japanese activist Tetsuhiko Endo points out, with a global budget of $25 million, anti-whaling NGOs (most notably, Sea Shepherd) are nearly as large as the entire whaling industry, which has annual revenues of $31 million. Yet whaling levels are twice as high as they were in 1990. Over that same time period, violence against other animals has continued its rapid increase in the very countries that have been most heavily targeted by anti-whaling campaigns, including Norway and Japan.

There is irresistible logic to this. When I was a child and first learned that dogs were being killed for food in China, I was horrified. I screamed and cried and begged my parents to stop my friends from being murdered. But they quickly dismissed my concerns as performing whiteness. “Americans do the same. Don’t you love bacon and baloney?”

As I child, I rejected this comparison. But in my adulthood, I now recognize that my parents were right. If we are going to break the species frontier, and grant rights to certain animals, there is no logical reason to stop with a single species. And if we are going to deny rights to one species, on the basis of their non-human status, who are we to object to the abuse of other animals?

The Japanese, Chinese, and others can see this logic as well, and immediately dismiss our single issue campaigns as hypocrisy, or worse yet, cultural imperialism. Local Asian activists who otherwise might be supportive of our efforts, in turn, are dissuaded from joining the movement for fear of being decried as hypocritical race traitors. The losers in all of this? Cultural understanding. Movement solidarity. And above all, the animals.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a huge dog lover. They were my entry into the world of animal rights. I am therefore the first person to say that dogs can be a window into the bigger picture of animal rights. However, to effectively serve as such a window, we have to give the public -- and indeed, animal activists, too -- a gateway into anti-speciesism. We have to hammer home the notion that concern for dogs without similar concern for animals killed by Westerners is both racist and speciesist. We have to have the courage to push our dog-loving, whale-loving, orangutan-loving friends to move beyond the low-hanging fruit -- marginal campaigns that the public is already willing to offer token support to (since they’re not involved in the abuse at issue anyways) -- and toward the root of the problem: the mentality of human supremacy. A mentality that people in our own neighborhoods are complicit in, most obviously, in who (not what, but who) we choose to eat. 

{Note: To PETA’s credit, the video does mention cows specifically. And the petition asks viewers to pledge to boycott all leather, not just the tiny amount of leather from dogs. But the campaign otherwise makes the abuse of dogs in China the subject of special ire, e.g. by emphasizing in bold type, “There's no easy way to tell whose skin you're really in.” But why does it matter whose skin you’re in, as long as it’s someone else’s skin?]

3. The campaign asks too little from us, when we have so much more to give

We need not travel great distances to find horrific abuse of animals. It's happening right next door. 

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the campaign, however, is that it asks so little of the online activists who rush to support it. The action page has two options: donate or sign a petition. But what in heaven’s name does this do for the dogs who are being brutally murdered across the world? (The deeper and more troubling critique -- that the campaign uses horrible abuse of animals as a fundraising device while seemingly making no effort to actually help the animals abused -- will be developed in a future blog post. The danger of the “animal abuse industrial complex” is one of the primary reasons behind DxE’s soon-to-be-announced Open Rescue Network.)

I have walked in places of violence for nearly 10 years, and I can tell you that animal abuse is everywhere, and easy to find. We need not cross a gigantic ocean to find men doing horrible things to animals. We can fix the log in our own eye before picking at the speck in our neighbor’s. But to do that, we have to take action.

And the “we” in that statement is important. We need each other to succeed. We need to be organized, ambitious, and unified. The greatest movements in history have always been products of collective grassroots mobilization. While they have elevated figureheads to speak for them, their power has stemmed from their ability to inspire ordinary people to come together in waves of nonviolent direct action. To be the change they want to see in the world.

Single-issue campaigns that demonize foreigners do the opposite of this. They offer Westerners a pat on the back for their own moral beliefs and behaviors, and give us license to return to “normalcy.” But this sort of self-satisfied clicktivism is the opposite of what we should be shooting for, if we are seeking real and permanent change for animals. And it’s so far short of what we can achieve. We don’t have to settle for being cogs in a nonprofit machine. We don’t have to relegate our activism to being mere names and emails in a donor database or registry. We can save our animal friends, and, with the right support and community, we can do it now.

Undercover investigations, particularly of foreign practices, are, too often, a form of moral voyeurism. We watch. We shake our heads. Sometimes, we even condemn. But we never act. This failure to act, however, is as big of a problem as the violence itself. Peter Singer is known as the author of Animal Liberation, the father of the animal rights movement. But he made his name as a philosopher with another idea: namely, that the suffering of the oppressed is the result of both acts and omissions.

If you came across a child collapsed in a pond, what would you do?

The point is best illustrated by a simple example. Suppose a man walks by a little girl playing in a pond. He notices the child holds a quarter in her hand, and decides to strangle her to take the quarter.

Now let’s consider another man. He also walks by a child playing in a pond, but sees that the child has bumped her head and fallen unconscious in the water. She will drown if he does not step into the water and take her out. But he thinks to himself, “Washing my pants will cost at least 25 cents. That’s too much to ask” And so he leaves the child to drown.

Singer makes the quite sound point that there is no moral difference between these two men. In both cases, they have chosen 25 cents -- and their own self-interest -- over the fundamental rights of someone in need.

This example shows that the responsibility for suffering lies in the hands of both those who commit affirmative acts of violence, and those who sit quietly while that act of violence is being committed. Those who elevate privilege, comfort, and popularity over the terrors of the oppressed. Yet, too often, our campaigns ask for only that: to be mere bystanders to violence. We have to do better. We want to do better. We can do better. But to do that, we have to completely rethink what it means to fight for animal rights. We have to envision, not a consumer marketing campaign fed by flash-in-the-pan single-issue campaigns, but a global community of activists fighting with every ounce of their energy for the animals who have so little power to fight for themselves.

We do this at DxE. When we look at our campaigns, and measure our progress, we ask ourselves: have we built something that will survive? Have we built institutions, norms, and community? Have we created empowered networks of animal rights activism?

Summing Up

Let’s make no mistake. I would never express solidarity with those Chinese engaging in violent acts against innocent animals. What they are doing is truly an atrocity, and one that justifies immediate action to end. But the same industries, practices, and traditions that allow certain Chinese to terrorize dogs with impunity also oppress the Chinese people themselves. The government’s failure to act to protect animals, for example, is logically connected to its failure to protect human rights. This is a nation, after all, where hundreds of millions languish under the weight of one-party rule.

This is also not an attack on PETA. Some of my hardest working and most dedicated friends work at PETA. And PETA’s founder Ingrid Newkirk, though justifiably criticized, lives a spartan lifestyle, devotes every waking moment to animals, and has shown true genius in understanding the crucial role of disruption and provocation in building movements. PETA is also one of the only nonprofits that has consistently shown support for grassroots activists.

At DxE, we focus on building campaigns that are robust over the long haul. Join our next day of action on January 11.

Rather, this is a heartfelt request for us to collectively do better in three important ways. First, we need to start focusing on the big picture back home, rather than pick on secondary issues or marginal communities. We can’t afford to lose allies in the largest nation in the world, a nation with the fastest-growing animal abusing industries. Second, we need to start taking animal equality seriously -- in our campaigns, in our actions, and even in our words. We can’t rely on speciesist messaging if our goal is to end species prejudice. Third, while the temptation to wallow in clicktivism is strong, we have to ask more of ourselves than signing an online petition. We have to remember that that little brown dog is not just a pixel on a screen, or an unfortunate story in a land far away. She is a window to the desperation, terror, and suffering of animals who are imprisoned right next door. And we have to take nonviolent direct action to ensure that their lives are not forgotten.

Motion to Introduce Bullhook Ban Passes After Seven-Hour Wait

Motion to Introduce Bullhook Ban Passes After Seven-Hour Wait

By Saryta Rodriguez


I attended my first city council meeting as an Oakland resident last night (December 9th). It was a session of farewells, discussion of nonviolent direct action, a 1,000-person demonstration, an accusation of illegality, and a hard-won victory for circus elephants.  It was also the longest meeting I had ever attended, breaking my previous record of five hours (with a break) and still in session when I left roughly seven hours after it started at 5:30pm.

The session began with something of an Oakland Government Oscar Night. This turned out to be both soon-to-be-former Mayor Jean Quan’s and Council President Patricia Kernighan’s last meeting, while retiring Director of Emergency Services and Homeland Security at Oakland Fire Department Renee Domingo was honored for her twenty-five years of service to the City of Oakland.  Volunteer leaders of Council District 2, including Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce Foundation President and unofficial “Mayor of Chinatown” Carl Chan, were also recognized.

Left to right: Mayor Jean Quan, City Council President Patricia Kernighan, Director of Emergency Services and Homeland Security Renee Domingo, and unofficial Mayor of Chinatown Carl Chan.

Left to right: Mayor Jean Quan, City Council President Patricia Kernighan, Director of Emergency Services and Homeland Security Renee Domingo, and unofficial Mayor of Chinatown Carl Chan.

Councilwoman Desley Brooks.

Councilwoman Desley Brooks.

Finally, it was time to address the issues.  The first item was the Ferguson Resolution, a motion “Calling for Changes to be Filed and Recognizing Our Collective Responsibility to Advance Racial Equity.” Councilwoman Desley Brooks did not mince words on the subject: “Racism is alive and well in Oakland.”  She spoke brilliantly on the importance of nonviolent direct action, and reminded us that the work of Dr. Martin Luther King and others is far from over.

Speaking specifically of the actions that led to BART service disruptions on November 28th of this year, Councilwoman Brooks offered the following words of wisdom:

Sometimes civil disobedience is uncomfortable, and sometimes it is inconvenient; but it is still NECESSARY.

While the passage of this resolution was critical, it was far less controversial than the bullhook debate that would follow hours later.  Almost all of the fifteen citizens who spoke prior to the vote spoke in favor of the resolution, with only one citizen stating his objection on the grounds that so many black people have been killed right here in Oakland without the parties responsible being held accountable in any way that any resolution passed by our city council should include them as well—not just the Michael Brown case. This battle was swiftly and unsurprisingly won; but there is still a long way to go with respect to rebuilding trust between the police and the community, as events unfolding later in the evening would demonstrate.

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   Bullhooks are used not only to inflict pain upon elephants but also to instill fear. Circus-raised elephants are taught as babies that the bullhook means pain.  Never forgetting this early trauma, elephants are controlled during training sessions via use of the bullhook and on stage via fear of it.  S  ome testified last night that handlers keep bullhooks up their sleeves during performances, hidden from the public but in view of the elephant— a constant reminder of the consequences of disobedience.

Bullhooks are used not only to inflict pain upon elephants but also to instill fear. Circus-raised elephants are taught as babies that the bullhook means pain.  Never forgetting this early trauma, elephants are controlled during training sessions via use of the bullhook and on stage via fear of it.  Some testified last night that handlers keep bullhooks up their sleeves during performances, hidden from the public but in view of the elephant— a constant reminder of the consequences of disobedience.

Initially, the bullhook ban was the first non-consent item on the meeting’s agenda. The items were quickly reordered, however, after it was determined that an overwhelming 110 people had signed up to speak their piece about the bullhook ban.

Discussion of the bullhook ban was delayed until roughly 10pm.  Right from the start, it was evident that this was not to be a traditional meeting.  Citizens who have signed up to do so are typically given roughly one minute each to speak at city council meetings.  At last night's meeting, the discussion of bullhooks instead began with a formal ten-minute presentation by those in favor of the ban—which had been approved prior to the session by Councilman Noel Gallo, one of the two who brought the issue to the fore (the other being Councilman Dan Kalb); but of which no one thought to request the prior approval of President Kernighan.

In her momentary absence from the chamber, a video began, showing Ringling Brothers employees abusing elephants with bullhooks in 2009.

Needless to say, Madam President was not pleased.

Councilman Kalb (left) and Councilman Gallo (right), being sworn in.

Councilman Kalb (left) and Councilman Gallo (right), being sworn in.

Councilman Larry Reid.

Councilman Larry Reid.

Roughly an hour into the discussion, it was announced that a group of protesters estimated at about 1,000 were gathered on the steps of City Hall, demonstrating against the Michael Brown and Eric Garner decisions.  Council members debated as to whether or not to shut down the meeting; while Councilman Larry Reid maintained that there were public safety issues to consider, and that the protesters should not be allowed into council chambers as to do so would create a fire hazard, Councilwomen Brooks and Lynette McElhaney insisted that not only should the session continue but that it was the council’s sworn duty to admit all citizens to the public meeting. 

As it turned out, the protesters stayed outside—though one citizen previously at the meeting rushed back into the chambers, having stepped outside to check out the action, and declared:

Councilwoman Lynette McElhaney.

Councilwoman Lynette McElhaney.

“Point of order: The doors are locked and people can’t get in.  If this meeting continues, it is hereby illegal under the Brown Act.”

The doors were then unlocked—at least at the side entrance.

The meeting continued.  Predictably, several concerned citizens spoke about the threat this ban posed to their jobs—seemingly unaware that it was neither City Council nor the citizens of Oakland but rather Feld Entertainment, Ringling Brothers’s parent company, who threatened their jobs (and, consequential, their access to health care).  The ban, mind you, had nothing whatsoever to do with banning circuses from Oakland or even banning the use of elephants in circuses in Oakland; it simply sought to ban the use of an abusive, dangerous instrument in the training of elephants.

Councilman Kalb was compelled to remind the chamber of this fact after testimony from the opposition repeatedly framed the argument as one of “humans vs. animals,” implying that job losses would immediately and inevitably result from the bullhook ban and that, consequently, anyone voting in favor of the elephants tonight would inherently be voting against humanity.

Sensing that the situation was about to get bloody, Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan—who had charmingly announced at the start of the meeting that she was wearing a sports cap in celebration of the Warriors’ recent victory over the Lakers—proposed a compromise: following the lead of Los Angeles and other cities, she proposed that the ban be passed but that it not go into effect until September 2017.  The compromise replaced the original motion to institute a ban effective immediately.

Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan.

Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan.

Elephant trainers on both sides of the debate spoke, some insisting on calling the bullhook a “guide” and claiming that they used it regularly and humanely, while others revealed that they had been training elephants for over a decade without the use of bullhooks. Feld Entertainment’s threat to stop bringing circuses and other shows under its umbrella, such as Disney on Ice, to Oakland was the company’s way of bullying City Council in the same way that it bullies elephants—implying that there is no choice in the matter, and that if it doesn’t get what it wants, anyone standing in the way will suffer.

The numbers bandied about surrounding the issue were equally absurd.  Everything from $200,000 to $700,000 to $1.4 million was cited as possible losses to our city without Feld’s patronage; yet not one of the three people who spat out these numbers was able to explain concretely how they had arrived as such a number.  One woman, who supported the $700,000 estimate, said she came to this conclusion by considering that some people who go to circuses might stay at Oakland’s hotels or use Oakland’s gas stations.  When was the last time anyone you know took a trip to a city in which they knew no one, and therefore were obligated to stay in a hotel, just to see the circus? Or filled a car with gas strictly for that purpose?

After nearly two hours of debate, Councilwoman Kaplan’s amendment to the ban was passed.  Aside from this single-issue victory, however hard-won, I have to say that perhaps the most inspiring part of the meeting for me was hearing Mayor Quan’s words prior to casting her vote in favor of the ban:

Honestly, I am certain that the day will soon come when we will see a ban on elephants being used in circuses altogether; but we made some moves tonight, and with this ban we will keep moving forward.

Here we arrive at the heart of the matter—total animal liberation.  Coming on the heels of my December 5, 2014 article, Low-Hanging Fruit,” the timing of her words could not have been better for me.  While banning circuses was not the issue of the evening, it was evident that many of the Oakland residents present would support such a ban; but there needs to be a starting point, a nexus.  Oakland has now joined Los Angeles and other cities in adopting a bullhook ban; it is my sincere hope that soon, Oakland will join Mexico City, Bolivia, Peru, Greece, and the many others who have banned the use of wild animals in circuses altogether.

The next city council meeting, at which the proposed ban will be finalized, with take place January 6, 2015.  I strongly encourage liberationist Oakland residents to attend.