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April 2004
Doth We Protest Too Much?

By Lawrence Carter-Long


I couldn’t get away. Email, phone calls and telepathic messages all seemed to badger me with the same question: “Are we protesting again this year?”

Attempts to implement new approaches were met with little enthusiasm and almost by surprise, the startling truth snuck free: “I’d rather have root canal.”

What began as a joke started to haunt me as I examined the subject further. Where was the enthusiasm that marked my introduction to activism? Where was the “charge” that once fueled countless hours on the streets—and the occasional stopover in jail? Had the fire literally ‘burned out?’ What had become of the angry but inspired young man I used to be?

Well, for starters, he’s not so young anymore. Grey hair and increasingly creaky joints evidence that fact. But the evolution has been more than physical.

Somehow, somewhere along the line, I began to feel differently about the kind of activism I wanted to do. Bearing witness was no longer good enough. Those perpetrating the damage knew damn well what they were doing and seemingly didn’t care. Sure I was still angry about what was happening, but oddly enough, I began to see that my tactics weren’t having their desired effect: no one seemed to actually change their behavior as a result of my yelling at them. Surprise, surprise…

I thought about how, despite the use of graphic—and very real—photographs and very vociferous efforts, tactics employed by groups like Operation Rescue had done little to change my opinion about abortion rights.

Clearly, my focus had shifted, but the question remained: To what?

Discussions with friends and colleagues didn’t provide much comfort. I was told when voicing my concerns about the direction of local actions and events, “We are looking to you for leadership.” Egads! This didn’t help much. Ringling Bros. circus has had a regular presence in New York City since 1872 and shows no sign of skipping their annual stint in the Big Apple. Furthermore, I doubt any definition of “leadership” includes continuing what you’ve been doing for years without any signs of success.

Following the world premiere of the latest Tribe of Heart film Peaceable Kingdom in February at New York’s Lincoln Center, I was reminded of their previous film The Witness which detailed Eddie Lama’s evolution to animal advocate. (If you haven’t seen these documentaries, you should.) In my experience, the power of those films does not necessarily lie in the issues themselves—which are powerful enough—but rather in the stories of regular folks, real people, who miraculously “woke up” to the abuse that was happening around them; to the cruelty they had somehow always missed.

This was reinforced last month while watching and interacting with the winners of this year’s Genesis Awards, which I’ve been honored to help select for the last three years. The annual awards show honors positive representation of animal issues in the mainstream media.

What occurred to me is many people, possibly most, have little problem with animal rights. Of course we need to be more respectful to animals. Duh. Of course cruelty should not be tolerated. No, where people seem to diverge are on their views of animal rights activists.

A quick Google search of the phrase “animal rights activist” revealed this little beaut as the first link (on UrbanDictionary.com): Hypocritical asshole who thinks that he/she can stop the killings of “poor, innocent animals” by harming humans and being a bitch until they get their way.

Ouch.

Moreover, other definitions I discovered were even less flattering. If this is in any way reflective of how the general public feels about animal rights, and I suspect it is, we’re in trouble. Shouldn’t a primary goal of any social justice movement be to bring more people into the fold? If otherwise sympathetic people reject what we’re trying to promote because of how activists behave we’ve failed miserably, by any definition.

Protest makes sense when no one is aware of what you’re peeved about—and if people actually listen—but perhaps by relying too much on protests we’re missing out on even better ways to facilitate change. Minds and hearts, like parachutes, work best when open. And minds only open to controversial issues when people are introduced to them through those they like, or at the very least, respect. We can ill afford to keep doing what we’ve been doing because it makes us feel better. Thankfully, we don’t have to. Animal abuse is no longer a hidden horror. Veggie fare is common in most supermarkets and popular films like Finding Nemo and Babe are readily available to rent, or own, on home video.

Is it time we talked less, and listened more? Is it time to move out of our turbulent adolescence—to be less enraged and more engaged? Is the Animal Rights movement ready to make the transition from one of protest to one that promotes?

Signs suggest it already is: The Witness shows without a doubt how curbside screenings of video footage of fur-bearing animals caught in traps can change minds without a single placard, or voice, being raised. Washington, DC’s Compassion Over Killing, among others, have been sponsoring veggie outreach events and making converts one person at a time by distributing local dining guides. Great American MeatOut events have steadily shifted in recent years to demonstrate less, and feed more. Viva USA! has wisely taken the mighty soybean right to the doors of Ben and Jerry’s and Baskin-Robbins stores to let soy ice cream make the case for dairy-free living through free samples.

Can this be done in other areas?

Moveon.org house parties screened Iraq Uncovered—which detailed the hidden reasons behind the Iraq war—en masse; thousands (rather than hundreds) participated across the nation. Imagine screening Peaceable Kingdom or the independent animal rights documentaries Chattel or Lolita: Slave for Entertainment for friends and family in our living rooms? Or bringing Matthew Scully’s Dominion to local book club or church meetings? Not a religious person—then how about J.M Coetzee or Jefferey Masson? Get creative. Order a subscription to Satya for your library, or better yet, for your loud-mouth brother-in-law. Think of the discussions that would follow….

Tired of protesting? That makes two of us, but we needn’t be paralyzed by fixating on what we used to do—or how we used to do it. Actions can be taken in ways which honor how we want to behave in the crazy world around us. I once said I refused to let what “they” do turn me into an asshole. Now, I see I never had to.

Recently a group of us rallied outside Madison Square Garden during Ringling Bros. circus and, for the most part, let undercover video do the talking. The response was, at times, remarkable.

I doubt I will ever forget a young man named Adam who watched, in shock, the videotape of elephants being beaten. After awhile, he shook his head, sighed, and said, “I can’t go to the circus now.” He then reached for his cell phone and made a quick call. Minutes later a young woman joined him before the video screen. They asked a few questions and then walked down the street into the subway station and away from Ringling’s cruelty.

Did we stop the circus on that day? Not exactly, but perhaps by allowing people to make up their own minds we did something even more important.

I’ll tell you this, it sure beats root canal.

Lawrence Carter-Long is the Northeast Director for In Defense of Animals and a
Satya Consulting Editor.

 

 


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