I have to get this off my chest.
I never thought I would say those words. How can a social movement trying to bring about change actually not want to be organized? Perhaps it’s my fault for using the term “social movement” so freely. I just assume that everyone is collective-oriented and about the movement as I am. So I’m baffled when I meet so-called activists who don’t want to cooperate, and I’m even more disturbed when they are the majority.
I live in Asheville, and I’m trying to organize the animal rights community here. It’s a community of roughly sixty individuals who identify as vegan and have been involved in some way or another with animal rights initiatives. All of them are white and the majority of them are women.
When I first arrived to Asheville, I got to know the animal advocacy “scene.” It wasn’t very strong. Quite a few restaurants serving vegan options and three vegan restaurants at the time, but I’ve never judged the movement’s performance by the prevalence of vegan products alone. The animal rescue network and grassroots aspect of the movement was virtually non-existent. The animal sanctuaries didn’t engage in any public outreach. With the exception of Goat Mountain Ranch Sanctuary, which is still only known to the select few who actively seek it, none of the sanctuaries are open to the public, nor do they engage in farmed animal rescues. Whenever I would encounter dog abuse cases, I could never get help from the local humane society or the no-kill shelter. Their response: they don’t do those kind of rescues, they just rescue animals from the pound. And the local wildlife rehabilitation center neither has the physical capacity nor the psychospiritual capacity to deal with injured and orphaned wildlife across this city, never mind in their own neighborhood. But what really stood out for me was how those who called themselves “animal activists” did not get along at all. Nothing was happening in Asheville because nobody was doing anything because nobody could work together for two days without arguing about identity politics and making personal attacks on each other.
Once upon a time, the animal rights community here actually did stuff. A few organizations regularly led protests and put on events. Apparently, things turned for the worse because leadership was crazy–still is crazy–and abuse among activists is not uncommon. One girl told me the story about one of these leaders harassing her so badly in her place of work that she withdrew from public animal activism entirely. Another activist, who is a friend of mine, had several burned relationships in the community–one concerning difference in opinion about PETA. Nowadays, groups of activists will boycott the efforts of other animal rights groups entirely out of past grievances.
Male leadership over predominantly female groups has also brought about this tension. According to second hand information from local activists, these groups have been led by men abusive in their decision-making power and will often bully and intimidate women activists into doing what they want.
I’ve participated in every single one of these circles, and I have never experienced such a community of animal advocacy that is so hurt. How can we possibly help animals and build community if we can’t even help ourselves? Everything begins to feel like a burden. Nobody can stand to be around the other and would rather see another activist’s efforts fail than participate. But at the same time, nobody seems willing to heal themselves–I mean, really heal themselves. As a result, we got a movement of suffering in Asheville.
This is the first time I’ve experienced a movement of suffering like this in animal rights. I experience this all the time in the movements to empower black people and women. In Asheville, I work with black women and girls to help them empower themselves and make their communities vibrant, self-reliant, and ecologically whole. Just as I did in Memphis, I struggle all the time to help motivate a people who are used to complaining, fighting among themselves, feeling depressed, and all the while doing nothing. It’s tough work. The best I’ve been able to do is start with myself and live by example. But even that is a daily challenge.
I don’t know what to say about Asheville except I’m going to continue to do my life’s work, even if that means doing it alone for a while and collaborating with folks who aren’t consumed by that vicious network. Fortunately, the Southern animal advocacy movement is growing, so even if Asheville is in a pit of despair right now, there’s always hope to organize regionally.
Have any of you experienced an animal rights or social justice community that suffered like this? I would love to learn more about how you dealt with it.