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March 2004
Home Demos and Traumatic Knowledge

By Carol J. Adams


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 would begin.

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 attention.

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 claims.

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 home.]
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.

Animal Activism
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 world.

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


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