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June/July 2005
Editorial: Conference Kerfuffle
By Catherine Clyne

 

I met my life partner at the AR 2001 conference. I also met Satya’s Managing Editor, Assistant Editor and former Assistant Editor at the FARM-organized animal rights conferences. Despite the sometimes tumultuous atmosphere of animal-related events, I make it a point to attend due to the many, many really inspiring people I continue to meet who do very real positive things for animals. These heartfelt connections are the backbone of the positive changes we seek to facilitate.

Over the years, I’ve questioned whether the panels and discussions—while helpful and informative to newcomers in particular—actually solve a lot. Sure, it’s important to foster debate and discuss strategy, campaigns and theory, but some of us have been having variations of these same debates for years. Occasionally, there’s a kernel of insight or new information to be shared, but most of the time, we get a steady diet of what we want to hear. A familiar buffet of repetition and rhetoric, a lot of ballyhoo about tactics and ample portions of theoretical grandstanding.

Heated debate is nothing new within the animal rights movement: rights vs. welfare, grassroots vs. national, celebrity appeal vs. animal suffering, mainstream vs. radical, aggressive vs. nonviolent…these debates have all been covered within these pages and elsewhere. But have the divisions between us become more influential than the similarities? Moreover, has resentment over these differences turned the animal rights movement into the animal rights stagnant?

I Pledge Allegiance To…
While the philosophical divide faced by animal advocates may seem largely theoretical at first, its impact becomes glaringly apparent if we consider the division lines drawn by our various (and some might say competing) conferences.

For the past several years, the premiere gathering for animal activists has been the annual AR conference organized by Alex Hershaft and the Farm Animal Reform Movement (FARM). Originally held in the Washington, DC area, it now alternates between DC and Los Angeles. This year, it takes place in the City of Angels.

Frankly, I’m not much interested these days in the hubbub over the organizing of FARM’s conference. Alex Hershaft stepped in to organize a national AR conference when others were either unwilling or unable to do so. He deserves credit, and thanks, for his commitment. That said, many of the problems and criticisms of his events have merit and have been widely discussed, sometimes ad nauseum. Critics have charged there has been woeful little democracy involved in the selection of speakers and panels. The usual suspects appear over and over; topics are recycled year after year. Although it has gotten easier for newcomers (read as non-sponsors) to get on the agenda in recent years, there have been major problems with sexism, something Alex and the FARM staff have struggled to address appropriately. And I’m happy to see some of the power being shifted into the able hands of Dawn Moncrief, a long-time conference organizer and the new Executive Director of FARM. There’s also been very little progress in terms of reaching out to other movements and addressing some of the pressing issues plaguing animal rights activism, such as racism, homophobia and the exclusion of people with disabilities.

Many surmised, myself included, that if the agenda of FARM’s conference didn’t reflect the needs and desires of the movement, the movement would simply move elsewhere.

It should come as little surprise then that, in recent years, a number of other ‘alternative’ conferences have popped up. Perhaps the biggest and potentially most influential is “Taking Action for Animals,” which takes place in Washington, DC the weekend after this year’s FARM event. This conference is organized by the large national organizations who have broken their allegiance to FARM over the years, including HSUS, PETA, the Animal Protection Institute, Doris Day Animal League, and Farm Sanctuary.

When I pressed a senior HSUS executive about this, the pithy response was that this movement is large enough to accommodate different major conferences and encompass all points of view. This might be valid if the conference were scheduled some months after its primary competitor, but putting it the weekend after? Come on, people.

In his interview in this issue, HSUS CEO Wayne Pacelle was a little more candid. The objection to the FARM conference is about the presence of activists who promote the use of illegal tactics involving violence, he says, namely property damage and threats. What he’s referring to specifically is the inclusion of speakers from groups like Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty and the Animal Liberation Front. More tellingly, with Taking Action for Animals, Pacelle thinks it’s important “to reclaim the core values of the movement.”

Perhaps the sprouting of conferences is a good thing and I’m just being resistant to change. Although it had its bumpy moments, I was very impressed with April’s relatively democratically organized Grassroots Animal Rights Conference here in New York. There is true potential there. And the Student Animal Rights Alliance “Liberation Now!” conferences have created a dynamic place for young activists to learn from and network with others, as have the Culture and Animals Conferences organized for many years by philosopher Tom Regan in North Carolina.

United we Stand, Right?
Clearly, the conference onslaught will, despite what soothing voices may profess, force some activists to choose between one conference or another in a power struggle not of their choosing. Will advocates choose sides, simply going with the grouping that more closely reflects already established views? Will animal rights activists continue their exodus away from each other to swirl in ever-shifting, progressively shrinking circles, until people give up on “the movement” altogether and simply work on more local endeavors? Will they just quit in frustration?

From the outside, the summer conference wars seem more about defining a movement and who gets to do it than about organizing positive change for animals. It bears reminding ourselves that regardless of who is jockeying for the pole position at this conference or that one, it is ultimately about the animals.

This summer, at Taking Action for Animals, HSUS, PETA and company will put forward their agenda, while AR 2005 will continue FARM’s traditional mix of panels, workshops and plenaries. The same weekend as the FARM conference, Friends of Animals has its own, “The Foundations of a Movement,” featuring FOA staff members and a handful of others and taking place in New York City. To get in on the action my life partner, Lawrence, has joked about hosting LARC—the Lawrence Animal Rights Conference—schedule and location to be determined later, probably in our backyard. At least we know who’ll be giving the plenary.

Still, despite understandable frustrations we should also remember the positives—whatever the subject and whomever the organizer. What I gain most from AR gatherings is usually not a topic addressed in a keynote address or workshop. It is the people I meet and relationships I forge—folks I encounter during panels and at mealtimes, in the bar, and at the tables in the exhibitor’s area. I suspect for many of us, the true benefit of AR conferences is just this: the opportunity to be with our community. Those are core values we can all get behind.

Clearly, we have ample opportunity to build a stronger community in Summer 2005. Let’s do so.

For the animals,
Catherine Clyne

 


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