Demos and Traumatic Knowledge
By Carol J. Adams
Photo courtesy of Carol J. Adams
On a bright Sunday afternoon, as we were unwinding from
a busy morning, we heard loud pounding on the door. Next, we saw a man
walking around the house, peering into windows. We were frightened.
Was he going to find the unlocked back door? On the front sidewalk,
protestors were assembling. Out of their cars they were pulling signs.
Flip Benham, the head of Operation Rescue, began to call to us from
a portable, but very powerful, speaker system. The sign carriers began
to walk up and down the sidewalk, their signs showed aborted fetuses.
At the time, my children were four and nine years old. So much happened
so quickly, that before we could assure them that they were safe from
the angry people outside, they had hidden themselves behind a large
chair, my older son holding onto his opened army knife prepared to protect
my younger son.
My partner Bruce is one of the ministers at a church that had hosted
an event for inner-city Dallas teens about leadership and decision-making.
This event, “Teen Savvy,” was sponsored by a variety of
Dallas groups, the YWCA, the Boys and Girls Club, the Dallas Public
Libraries, the Girl Scouts, and Planned Parenthood.
Over the years, Operation Rescue chose different tactics to convey to
our church how displeased it was by the church’s hosting of Teen
Savvy because it was co-sponsored by Planned Parenthood, which supports
a woman’s right to abortion. First, they protested the event itself,
shoving graphic posters in the faces of young children coming into the
church for another program. That first year, Bruce found himself on
the receiving end of their shouts—“Bruce, Bruce, why are
you killing babies?”
Though at first the tumult and confrontation had been confined to the
Saturday of the event, Operation Rescue decided to take their protest
directly to church members. In 1991, they escalated their protests,
showing up the Sunday after the event, with posters and shouting, condemning
the church and its leaders. In 1992, frustrated by their failure to
derail the church from being the site of this event, they radicalized
their actions specifically to a church context. They interfered with
a church service Bruce was leading. One protester after another interrupted
the service, shouting Bruce’s name and reading from the Bible;
when one person was escorted out by the security guard, another person
The following Sundays, Operation Rescue showed up with bullhorn in hand,
denouncing the ministers and excoriating the church. Many parents with
young children were upset by the graphic posters they found thrust in
their children’s faces as they entered the parking garage. Operation
Rescue’s actions were not about dissent. They were about intimidation.
According to Dallas Blanchard’s and Terry Prewitt’s Religious
Violence and Abortion there are stages in the radicalization of anti-abortionists.
As anti-abortionists face disappointment in realizing their goals, an
increase in the level and type of activities occurs. They begin with
picketing; if this picketing is met with injunctions, they move to the
use of bullhorns. While some of the original protestors drop out, uncomfortable
with the more dramatic and hostile types of actions, others join, “apparently
attracted by the more dramatic actions,” and they begin rising
to the forefront. There is a concurrent increase in the use of dramatic
symbols (i.e., from hand-lettered signs to photos of aborted fetuses).
Blanchard and Prewitt report, “When all these tactics failed to
yield significant change, the anti-abortionists began picketing the
doctors’ and managers’ homes.” These tactics may cause
a decrease in numbers of people involved but also brings about media
And so it was, that the following year Operation Rescue targeted our
home. For Operation Rescue the picketing of our home probably satisfied
many needs: it would be one way to punish Bruce for his support of Planned
Parenthood. They let him know that they knew where he lived, in itself
a chilling statement. It also provided an additional activity for these
people who have been called “Weekend Warriors.” They could
picket the church until one o’clock or so, eat Sunday dinner,
and then come to our house for a gratifying after-dinner activity. They
could tell neighborhood kids that Bruce handed out condoms at local
schools and otherwise enjoy people’s attention to their sensationalist
Suddenly we found ourselves caught in the maelstrom of anti-abortion
picketing. Outside the house were people who had for several years called
Bruce a baby killer.
The kids knew that something was wrong. They could hear the tension
in our voices as we discussed what should be done. We were concerned
about whether the picketing would escalate into violence. We decided
to call the police. Perhaps it was this point that cemented in our kids’
minds that something truly unusual and frightening was happening. They
knew that calling 9-1-1 means an emergency.
Later, when we talked with our children about what had happened, our
four year-old, Ben asked: “What about our friends? Are they in
trouble and do they need to call 911?”
Bruce tried to help a four year-old understand the singularity of the
incident. Ben had a ready frame into which this experience fit: “Bad
guys.” He proclaimed, “We have bad guys at preschool and
Clay and I take care of them: we hit them.” (Hmm, I thought, this
will have to be pursued at another time; happily, in fact, no hitting
had occurred, though he apparently fantasized that this was a way to
handle problems.) Bruce responded, “Well, we’re not going
to hit them. But in a sense they are like bullies. Except they aren’t
going to hit you. But like bullies they are trying to scare you into
doing what they want you to do.”
Ben wanted to know “Are they going to come back again?”
Bruce explained about free speech, “Everyone in the United States
is allowed to carry signs. They are entitled to walk in front. But they
can’t come to the house.” Then he tried to prepare them
for what else might happen: “I want you to know, we’ll work
together on this. And I want you to know there may be other times. If
they get you on the telephone they may say some nasty things about me.”
But Ben? A four year-old’s frame of reference is precisely that:
a four year-old’s. It is filled with tales of giant slayers and
the struggle against bad guys. A few Sundays later, Ben asked, “When
is Operation Rescue coming?” When we were baking bread for holiday
gifts to teachers, he asked, “We aren’t giving any bread
to the bad guys are we?” Since the line-up of bad guys for four
year-olds is very extensive, I responded “Bad guys?” “Yes,”
Ben said, “Operation Rescue. They aren’t our friends are
they?” In the midst of the Christmas Eve service at our church,
Ben asked if Operation Rescue was going to be there.
Several months later, as we were glueing together the Emerald City of
Oz, Ben asked “Remember that Sunday when Operation Rescue came?”
“Yes,” I said.
I asked, “What do you remember about it?”
Ben: We called the police. I think I know why they didn’t come
back. Maybe the police put them in jail. [They did come back; we weren’t
No, Ben, they aren’t in jail. They have gone on to something else.
What else do you remember?
Ben: Me and Doug hide. And Doug had his pocketknife. I was afraid you
were going to let them in. And one of them was going to sit on Daddy’s
chair. And Doug would cut his head off with his pocketknife.
In a very unsafe world, parents understandably see their home as a sanctuary
for their children—at least here we can keep them safe. Home demos
deprive children of that safety; once it is taken away, it is very difficult
for parents to re-instill it. Home demos, if we follow Blanchard’s
and Prewitt’s analysis, also indicate something else: in the radicalization
of the protests, we lose some people and gain others.
Ten years later, at the West Coast Animal Rights conference last August,
when I tried to discuss the impact of home demos on children, I found
I could not discuss it without getting choked up. With tears streaming
down my face, I argued against home demos, especially those that target
families. I was told, “This is a war!” I was told, “Vivisectors
should not have children!”
I was told, “There will always be some innocents sacrificed in
a battle!” Hmm, so, suddenly, home demos are defended in the same
way that vivisection is defended: the means justify the ends and innocent
suffering is an acceptable and necessary cost to achieving success.
Sure home demos make protestors feel good. It provides a sense of accomplishment.
It provides an outlet for focusing anger over what is happening to animals.
But it strikes me as a very male method. I do not see myself as waging
war to defend animals.
Home demos are defended as a tool to achieving animal liberation; I
suggest we see them as a response by some in the animal rights community
to traumatic knowledge.
The death of nonhumans not only violates specific nonhuman animals,
it is a violation of the humane desire for the good and the just. The
death of nonhumans is always on hand for animal rights activists. This
is traumatic knowledge. Traumatic knowledge makes us feel the suffering
of animals acutely. It feels relentless. It does not provide relief
but intensifies our emotional connections to animals. For animal rights
activists, traumatic experiences are re-encountered regularly. This
adds to the trauma.
One aspect of traumatic knowledge is that it asks to be heard, to be
spoken about, to be named. Sometimes our friends and co-workers think
we are going to drive them crazy saying, “Do you know about this?
Do you know about that?” We want and need to be heard. We want
to end animals’ oppression.
But there are many ways to achieve this.
The basic debate that every social change movement experiences, about
whether the ends justify the means, is different for us. We are acting
on behalf of others—and their powerlessness seems to call us to
use any means possible to stop their abuse, their oppression. We feel
an urgency to act.
But this urgency is dangerous. Traumatic knowledge may cause us to see
everything in black and white. The problem is we live in a grey world.
Activism is grounded in theory; theory is expressed through activism.
Keeping them linked is very important. Theory helps us see the grey
Home demos, to me, seem to reflect the way the burdens of traumatic
knowledge may disengage us from a responsibility to other beings, especially
children. Home demos split traumatic knowledge in half. They deliver
the trauma without the knowledge.
Carol J. Adams is the author of numerous books, including The
Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory,
The Pornography of Meat, Living Among Meat Eaters
and the recently released Help! My Child Stopped Eating Meat! An
A-Z Guide to Surviving a Conflict in Diets. Besides speaking and
writing about the interconnected oppressions of racism, sexism, and
speciesism, she has been involved in antiwar, antiracism, and abortion
rights issues, and the movement to end violence against women and children.
To learn more, visit www.caroljadams.com.