Do we protest too much?
The following is from Satya
Magazine - a monthly publication focusing on vegetarianism,
environmentalism, animal advocacy, and social justice.
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
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
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
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
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.