So much to say about the conference, so many words. This year’s conference was my first attendance, and it exceeded and confirmed expectations all at once. The conference contained for me some insight, some inspiration, some passion, some racism. It took me a full week to recap my experience into words I could share on this blog. Many others I have since befriended have written on the conference as well. See Katie’s AR Conference recap for a different perspective.
Voices of the Movement
Not surprising, the dominant voices at the conference came from the large farm animal advocacy organizations. Probably because the organizers FARM are among these organizations. Probably because major voices in the AR movement have prioritized farm animal advocacy above all others since they are the most regularly and extensively exploited and killed land animals in the US. Nevertheless, I found this skew in attention to be unfortunate and so was thrilled to see talks (though few in numbers) that brought attention to the plight of wildlife and marine animals and laboratory animals.
I was extremely delighted to see that these folks presenting on the issues were grassroots and showed no doubt that they were working from the heart toward animal liberation. Michael Budkie and his organization Stop Animal Exploitation Now research extensively the on-going abuses and violations of laboratory institutions that use animals in research, particularly animals covered in the Animal Welfare Act. As volunteers, they are a watchdog organization, applying pressure to the laboratory research industry by exposing them and filing complaints to shut them down. I never knew about them prior to attending the conference.
George Guimaraes organizes a group in Brazil called VEDDAS, which stands for Ethical Vegetarianism Animal Rights Defense and Society. Most recently, they allied with environmental groups and indigenous tribes in Brazil to resist the construction of the Belo Monte dam on the Amazon that would destroy rainforest and riparian habitat, kill aquatic inhabitants of the Amazon, displace indigenous people, and displace wildlife–all to supply 11,233 megawatts in “renewable” energy. I had the wonderful pleasure of meeting him and connecting with him in my work as a nonprofit consultant. I did not know anything about this dam before I attended the conference.
Direct action groups and activists such as Sea Shepherd Society, Peter Young, Animal Liberation Front, and Animal Rescue Corps were also representing. Sea Shepherd and Animal Rescue Corps are two of my favorite animal rights organizations, and I was happy to see them in attendance and talk with Peter Hammerstedt and Scotlund Haisley.
Finally, I met pattrice jones and lauren ornelas (Food Empowerment Project) for the first time in the flesh. That was fantastic. They spoke, along with Lisa Kremmerer, on the “commonality of oppression” and the room was packed. Speaking with passion and fervor, pattrice asked the audience why they clap so enthusiastically over intersectionality but don’t do anything to demonstrate their awareness once the conference is over. Nobody gave an answer because it’s a tough question to answer, especially for this crowd that was white and privileged. Which brings me to the next section on this conference: racism.
Racism at the conference
Of course, I was one of few black folks at the entire conference: that is not surprising. What was surprising was the presence of other people of color–Latinos and Latinas, South and East Asians–from all over the world, turning out as passionate supporters for animal rights. I met latinas and black women moved by the call to animal liberation but simultaneously feeling isolation and loneliness from the need to be aware of and in opposition to the constant oppression of racism.
We couldn’t just rest and experience the joy of being among fellow activists for animal liberation. Not without experiencing racism.
No talk or piece of literature from large animal advocacy organizations goes by without their comparing animal oppression to racial and gender oppression. Except they don’t make these comparisons out of a genuine care for people of color’s or women’s struggles but rather as fuel to fire their animal advocacy campaigns. I had to remind Bruce Friedrich at Farm Sanctuary that just because American slavery was abolished in the mid-eighteen hundreds doesn’t make black people’s struggle for social justice and the rights to fare well any less real and serious today.
I also had a disappointing conversation with a white lesbian at Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary, where in response to my talking about the plight of the black community in Asheville, she pulled a common white privilege tactic of extrapolating black people’s circumstance to the general, abstract experience all humans share and therefore relegating it as irrelevant to talk about (this was in response to the displacement of Asheville’s black population by urban renewal into public housing). Then she came out and asked me, “So are you more into anti-racist activism than animal rights? Because it sounds like you got your hands in more than one basket.” Being put on the spot to choose between the struggle of my people and the struggles of the diverse array of beings we call animals–no wonder people of color are frustrated when they meet AR folks like this who have the audacity to put their heart on trial. But I simply responded, “My heart guides me to act for the liberation of all beings, so that all living beings may live in dignity and self-reliance and freedom. Because I am black, I cannot deny the influence race has on my life. I must be intersectional.” She had nothing more to say to me after that.
But what put the icing on the cake was the white woman who challenged me and a fellow black female attendant at the AR Conference to be ambassadors for our race. The sista and I were eating lunch at a very colorful table, populated by Vegetarian Society of DC members attending the lunch. She came to us and told us how thankful she was that we were at the conference. She lamented how few black people were at the conference, declaring that the diversity of the conference was “unacceptable.” Then she said, “We need more diversity at this conference. What are you going to do about it?” The other black woman responded, agitated, “I’m not doing anything. I’m here. What are you going to do about it?” The white woman went on to tell us how she’s a lawyer and works with at-risk low-income youth and doesn’t know how to reach out to their communities to spread the message of veganism. I told her, “I don’t find veganism in the black community to be lacking anymore than in the white community. It’s not that veganism is a problem in the black community, it’s the lack of access, it’s white folks assuming they need to bring some outside message to communities they don’t understand at all.” I advised her, “If you really want to reach black folks, then take the time to learn where they’re coming from. Since you live in DC, get to know the struggles and perspectives of black communities in DC. Don’t assume you know. Actually demonstrate care and meet them where they are. Other than that, I have no other advice for you.” And so ended our conversation, and later, sista and I spoke amongst ourselves the frustration of experiencing that but at the same time, giving the woman props for having the ovaries to at least say to our face what so many white folks at the conference were probably already thinking.
HSUS and everybody else
So far I’ve just talked about the conference organized by FARM. I didn’t even tell you about the counter-conference organized by Tribe of Heart. The counter-conference was a reflection of the underlying current of frustration at the conference over the presence of HSUS and the suppression of discourse around the Egg Products Inspection Act (HR 3798) currently pending review in US congress. I won’t go into a whole lot of detail over this bill here, but I will say that large farm animal advocacy groups that were present (Mercy for Animals, Farm Sanctuary, Compassion Over Killing) are in favor of the bill, whereas groups like United Poultry Concerns and PETA are against it, and FARM is taking a neutral position. Karen Davis was one of the most vocal opponents to the bill there, and she was very frustrated with the conference and FARM for intentionally providing no space to discuss that bill.
What sparked Tribe of Heart to organize the counter-conference was the appearance of the national AR conference being compromised and influenced by HSUS. Bob Linden (Go Vegan Radio) passed out flyers to conference attendants proclaiming that HSUS and their alliance with animal agriculture industry groups like United Egg Producers is “hijacking this conference and the animal rights movement.” James LaVeck at Tribe of Heart told a disturbing tale of his experience with HSUS, PETA, and Mercy for Animals. In his story, these organizations compete against each other to preserve their organizations first and foremost. And Karen Davis spoke of her experience with HSUS’s Paul Shapiro and their backroom deal with United Egg Producers on behalf of the entire movement.
All in all, the counter-conference was organized out of fear, but the ultimate motives behind those fears had some bearings in truth. And FARM’s attempted suppression of the counter-conference, their avoidance of critical discussion within the AR conference, their unchecked promotion of HSUS, and their avoidance of the egg products amendment bill didn’t look good at all.
Attending the conference, the counter-conference, and the anti-vivisection demonstration afterwards against Patton-Boggs, LLC were the most invigorating experiences of my life this year. I am so glad I attended and met wonderful, compassionate, intelligent, fiery activists who came together over a common longing to experience animal liberation. Even with the racism, the controversy, and the skewed representation. And the zealous AR supporters who cling narrowly to their ideologies above all else. I wouldn’t trade the experience I had for anything else in the world. I’m happy to recall it, and I intend to return to the next conference. Racism won’t stop me from acting for animal liberation. No matter how “mainstream” the focus of the AR conference becomes, I’ll continue to network with grassroots activists and activists of color so that we may strengthen ourselves, our organizations, and our movement.
**Changes: Though Alex Hershaft of FARM said at the AR Conference 2012 that FARM was taking a neutral position, they are in fact not neutral in their support of HR 3798. http://farmusa.org/HR3798.htm and http://www.animalpeoplenews.org/anp/2012/05/12/letters-may-2012-2/